Education, child care, mental health key issues at budget hearing

House Appropriations

The House Appropriations Committee took testimony from the public on the budget. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

The House Appropriations Committee heard from dozens of Vermonters at a public hearing in Montpelier on Thursday.

Some, including Kathleen Moore, testified in support of appropriations in Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget.

Moore, an adjunct professor at Community College of Vermont, urged lawmakers to support the $4 million appropriation to support the Vermont State Colleges System.

Many students at the community college come from low economic backgrounds and balance their studies with jobs. She works with students who struggle with domestic violence, significant mental health issues and persistent health conditions, she said.

For some, events that may seem like inconveniences to middle class students are major barriers. A broken computer can prove to be a major impediment, she said.

“Students sometimes fail because of those small obstacles,” she said, urging lawmakers to consider ways to reduce the financial impact of higher education on students.

Joshua Sevits, also an adjunct faculty member at Community College of Vermont, said they face issues with retaining students.

He said he has taught students who take some classes before realizing “the road ahead is fraught with massive debt, and ultimately decide an education is out of reach.”

“I’m worried about the effect unaffordable education will have on low income Vermonters,” he said.

Several people also spoke in support of a proposal in the governor’s budget to increase appropriations for child care and early education. Scott’s budget would put $7.5 million toward a program that offers financial assistance for child care.

Kaia Andrews said she had trouble finding a child care provider for her children.

“I’m a parent with two, but I’m also a parent with a disability so I really rely on child care,” Andrews said. “And I cannot even get that far right now because of the issues that child care providers are facing.”

Cindy Daniels, who works at the Vermont Community Loan Fund, said she works often with early child care and education businesses and is “extremely concerned” with underfunding of the child care financial assistance program. She urged lawmakers to support the governor’s boost to the program.

Many also raised issues with appropriations omitted from the budget. The governor’s proposed budget does not include an increase in funding to the designated agencies — the non-governmental organizations that provide mental health and disability services.

Witnesses said level funding is a major problem for the local agencies, which are taxed by heavy caseloads, little money for pay increases and high staff turnover.

Ed Paquin, the director of Disability Rights Vermont, said that a high turnover rate at the agencies means that they often fail to deliver services continuously to people who need them.

The staffing and funding issues are “hollowing out” a system that is otherwise well-designed, he said.

Susan Loynd of Washington County Mental Health, a designated agency based in Barre, said that the organization has vacant 90 positions, or 12 percent of the total workforce, because of a lack of adequate funding.

Some positions at the agency have lower wages compared to similar jobs elsewhere, and the agency struggles with staff turnover.

“We want to help, we’re here to help, we do help,” Loynd said. “Give us some more money.”

Others asked lawmakers to provide financial support to parent child centers, to invest in a program that aims to rehabilitate sex offenders, and to support Planned Parenthood.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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