The Vt. Senate gave preliminary approval for $5.239 billion in state spending on Wednesday in a 27-2 vote with no debate.
Senators are holding their fire until today when they will offer amendments to the Big Bill. But if the initial overwhelming support is any indication, proposed changes will likely come from the senators on the right and left.
One of the two dissenters was Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, the Republican minority leader. He voted against the bill on principle. “I remain concerned that we’re doing too much, for too many, for too long, with too little,” Benning said. “We need to take a serious look at our programs and determine which ones are nice and which ones are necessary.”
Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, also voted against the bill for different reasons.
Pollina will be asking for a “time out” on changes to the Reach Up program to give lawmakers more time to study the issue.
Pollina says the Senate Health and Welfare Committee recommended a study on the impact of a five-year cap on benefits. That proposal was not included in the final bill. “A lot of people are unhappy with the way this has unfolded,” he said.
The budget puts a five-year cap on welfare benefits, increases case management oversight designed to help parents get to work more quickly and forms a working group that is charged with analyzing the impacts of cap.
The language regarding benefits for parents who have exceeded the 60-month cap and are complying with Reach Up requirements is unclear, according to Christopher Curtis, a Vermont Legal Aid lawyer. He says the bill gives the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families sole discretion over whether parents who play by the rules can continue to receive benefits.
“In the Senate version of the bill, there is no consideration of families who don’t meet some exception,” Curtis said. In addition, the Shumlin administration is free to define the parameters of “hardship,” Curtis said.
In the House budget bill parents who exceed 60 months and are in compliance with Reach Up rules would continue to receive “child only grants.” Critics of the House bill say that approach undermines the five year cap.
If parents are meeting state guidelines, the federal government covers the cost of ongoing support beyond 60 months, Curtis says, for up to 20 percent of the entire caseload.
“The big question is what happens to the children,” Curtis said. “That question has gone unanswered by the administration.”
Pollina will also offer an amendment that would change the developmental services portion of the budget. As it stands, the administration has the ability to change the system of care rules without legislative input, Pollina says. “My fear is they will make cuts that will affect people’s lives,” he said.
About 13,000 people in Vermont have developmental disabilities, and of those 3,000 use state services, according to Pollina. Over the last four years, programs for developmentally disabled Vermonters have been reduced by $6.5 million. About 150 caretaker jobs have been eliminated and the number of quality assurance personnel who are charged with ensuring services are delivered has been reduced from 12 to 3.5, he said. “We don’t know if the program is working,” Pollina said.
The $5.239 billion budget represents a 4.4 percent increase in spending. It includes $71 million in increased base funding for state obligations and programs, according to the Joint Fiscal Office.
The Legislature and the Shumlin administration have used about $50 million in one-time money to fill a gap between state revenues and spending.
The Senate proposal is $2 million less than the House proposal. The Senate eliminated funding for $9 million in reserves the House set aside in anticipation of federal cuts.
The budget includes 52 new permanent positions and eight limited service positions, according to JFO.
Education spending is now $2 billion. The next biggest area of state expenditures is health care. Vermont receives $1.2 billion in Medicaid money through a “global commitment” waiver that supports health care services for 170,000 Vermonters and saves the state about $90 million a year, according to Sen. Jane Kitchel, chair of Senate Appropriations. That’s because the state has the flexibility to spend the money on a variety of programs, including the College of Medicine at UVM and the Department of Health.
About $20 million in appropriations this year will cover an increase of 3 percent to Medicaid providers and support subsidies for low-income Vermonters who will pay more for health care under the Affordable Care Act.
The budget funds the Low Income Heating Assistance Program at $7.9 million — $1.9 million more than the House proposal. It sets aside $3.4 million for child-care programs.
The Red Cross will receive $200,000 for Vermont Yankee emergency preparedness costs.
The Vermont Veterans’ Home is slated to receive $1.3 million to correct a “budgeting error.”