Trump budget cuts would gut federal funds to Vermont

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump shares a laugh with (clockwise from left) Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Tom Price, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday in the Oval Office. Photo courtesy of White House

WASHINGTON — On Thursday morning, Republican President Donald Trump released a draconian budget proposal that, if enacted, would devastate domestic spending in order to boost military spending and enhance border security.

The Trump plan was modeled on a budget blueprint promoted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a D.C. think tank that advocates for small government and fiscal responsibility. Trump’s “skinny budget” features significant government layoffs, drastically reduced federal aid programs and weakened federal regulatory enforcement authority.

This is the first time in modern history that an American president has proposed a reshuffling of the nation’s fiscal priorities on such a massive scale. The closest analogy is President Ronald Reagan’s effort to reform government spending in the 1980s. (Reagan famously concluded his 1988 farewell speech by contending that “man is not free unless government is limited.”)

The White House views the so-called “skinny budget” as a fulfillment of Trump’s campaign pledge to reduce waste, fraud and abuse in government while cracking down on crime and terrorism.

“Our aim is to meet the simple, but crucial demand of our citizens—a Government that puts the needs of its own people first,” Trump wrote in an introduction to the proposal. “When we do that, we will set free the dreams of every American, and we will begin a new chapter of American greatness.”

While the proposal has been coined the “America First” budget, the cuts would be disproportionately felt in the red, rural areas of America where Trump is most popular. The GOP’s recently unveiled health care plan, which was drafted by Congress and the White House, would also exact a heavy price in Trump country.

Broadly speaking, Trump’s plan guts federal programs and shifts the financial and regulatory burden of government onto the states.

In Vermont, any major reduction in federal support would be catastrophic. Under pressure from Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who has pledged not to raise taxes or fees, state legislators are now grappling to close a $18 million budget gap.

Andy Pallito, the state commissioner who is responsible for Scott’s budget proposal, could not be reached Thursday. But in an interview with VTDigger in late February, he said that state reserves totaling $133 million aren’t enough to backfill ongoing cuts from the federal government.

“We don’t have nearly the level of money we need for long-term base cuts, so we would have to make some cuts at the state level if something major were to transpire,” Pallito said.

Of the $5.7 billion Vermont budget in fiscal year 2016, roughly 35 percent — or $2.13 billion — consisted of federal dollars. (In addition to grants and subsidies, Vermont received $523.1 million in federal contracts last year.)

The largest single allocation of federal dollars goes to Vermont’s Medicaid program, which received more than $1 billion from Washington in 2016. If the Republican health care plan is enacted, Vermont could lose up to $200 million in Medicaid money beginning in late 2019.

Federal dollars seep into all aspects of Vermont government. In fiscal 2016, federal money was funneled into 25 state agencies and departments.

Trump’s proposed cuts would not go into effect until fiscal year 2018, which begins on Oct. 1, 2017.

If fully enacted, the Trump budget would impact areas that affect the day-to-day lives of everyday Vermonters: air and water quality, transportation, college assistance and more. Farmers and businesses would lose access to grants and loans, and job training programs for the elderly would dry up. The cuts would fall the hardest on the state’s most vulnerable.

The Trump budget includes a few spending increases that could benefit Vermonters. A proposed $4.6 billion increase to the Veterans Administration means the White River Junction VA facility could see some improvements.

The proposal also prioritizes spending on the opioid epidemic. In addition to current substance abuse and mental health programs funded at the national level, Trump proposes a $500 million increase in spending for treatment and recovery services.

In addition, programs once thought to be on the chopping block would be retained, such as grant programs to fight domestic violence and provide bulletproof vests for police officers.

Anticipated congressional opposition

The Trump budget will face intense pushback in the halls of Congress, where both Democratic and Republican lawmakers support a number of the programs the president hopes to ax.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the top Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. On Thursday afternoon, Leahy said Trump’s plan is “packed with partisan campaign promises.”

“This is not a budget proposal, it’s a budget by Tweet and a blueprint for the Trump-leveraged buyout of America,” Leahy said. “And I’m going to fight for Vermont’s true interests, and for our national interests.”

On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said the proposal is “morally obscene and bad economic policy.”

“It will cause devastating pain to the very people Trump promised to help during the campaign,” Sanders said. “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, when 43 million Americans are living in poverty and half of older Americans have no retirement savings, we should not slash programs that senior citizens, children and working people rely on in order to provide a massive increase in spending to the military industrial complex. Trump’s priorities are exactly opposite of where we should be heading as a nation.”

Green Mountain National Forest 2

The Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. USDA photo

Environment

Under Trump’s proposal, the Environmental Protection Agency would see the deepest cuts of any federal agency. The EPA’s budget would be slashed by 31 percent, totaling roughly $2.6 billion in savings.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources relies heavily on federal support. About 40 percent of the funding for the state’s environmental programs come from the EPA.

Julie Moore, the secretary of the state agency, said Thursday that the proposed cuts “have the potential to be devastating.”

The EPA gives states the authority to enforce environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Moore said that Trump’s budget would cut federal assistance for enforcement by 45 percent, or roughly $5.5 million.

“Under the proposed changes, we are still on the hook to implement those acts but wouldn’t be getting the federal support,” Moore said.

About $32 million from the EPA supports the Department of Environmental Conservation annually. About $12 million is for staff and services, while $20 million is allocated for drinking and wastewater infrastructure improvements in Vermont. A 31 percent reduction in federal funding could gut the state’s environmental regulatory structure and significantly reduce monies distributed to local communities for clean water projects.

The Trump budget saves $427 million by returning “responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to state and local entities, allowing EPA to focus on its highest national priorities.”

Moore said that means support for the Lake Champlain cleanup would be scrapped, a $4.5 million annual loss to the state.

“Our understanding is that the Lake Champlain Basin Program itself is proposed to be eliminated outright,” Moore said. “That’s a significant concern for us as well. The EPA currently provides financial assistance, technical assistance, as well as a crucial coordination efforts between Vermont, Quebec and New York.”

The Green Mountain National Forest, which currently receives roughly $6 million a year from the feds to subsidize operational costs, is on the chopping block, too. The president calls for reduced funding of “lower priority activities in the National Forest System.”

Also in jeopardy are grants to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department that help protect threatened and endangered species.

Trump axes more than 50 EPA programs, including the Energy Star efficiency program and air quality programs.

In fiscal 2016, Vermont received more than $18 million EPA grants from the State Revolving Fund, which helps communities with wastewater treatment infrastructure and clean water programs.

Trump offers a modest $4 million increase for the State Revolving Fund — spread across 50 states.

“That recommendation sort of rings hollow,” she said.

The president’s budget reins in funding for pollution cleanup efforts at Superfund sites, cutting the program by $330 million. The state of Vermont received more than $300,000 in Superfund money last year to help clean up 14 sites from Bennington to Lyndon.

Moore said federal money for brownfield site cleanup is at risk, too. Every federal dollar for the program leverages $28 in private investment to help turn abandoned industrial sites into usable commercial land.

Dairy

Dairy cows munch hay at Fairmont Farms in East Montpelier. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Rural Economy and Agriculture

Trump would slash the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget by 21 percent, for $4.7 billion in savings.

The Rural Business Cooperative Service would be discontinued. The service offers grants ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 to businesses with fewer than 50 employees in rural areas.

One such grant, totaling $357,990, enabled Maxwell Farms in Newport to buy a methane digester. Once the digester was purchased, the 850-cow farm created a new income stream selling power to a local utility.

Trump would put an end to the Water and Wastewater loan and grant program, which provides funding for clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage disposal and sanitary solid waste disposal across Vermont, and the country.

The president says USDA should be streamlined, suggesting that rural development programs could lose employees or see reduced hours.

Trump hopes to terminate the Economic Development Administration, which offers grants to spur economic innovation, in order to save $221 million.

The Economic Development Administration invested $265,000 in 2016 to boost the green energy economy around Vernon in an effort to mitigate the economic impact of the decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee power plant. In 2013, the EDA invested $6.5 million in Vermont. The money was used to improve internet and communications infrastructure in 25 communities throughout the state.

Trump calls for a decrease in “federal support for job training and employment service formula grants, shifting more responsibility for funding these services to States, localities, and employers.”

One such job program that would come to an end is the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps older people find jobs. Vermont Associates for Training & Development has been recognized nationally for its successful implementation of the program.

Trump is also advocating for the elimination of the Northern Border Regional Commission, which supports economic development in rural, economically challenged areas of the state. Last year, Vermont received $1.8 million from the commission.

Another economic program under threat is the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which funds consulting services for small- and medium-size businesses.

The Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center, which is partnered with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, has offered advice to businesses small and large across the state for more than two decades. The organization’s website features executives from IBM to Vermont Creamery thanking the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center for critical support.

Bob Zider, president of the Vermont center, said that the $124 million allocated to Manufacturing Extension Partnership is a small price to pay for a service that helps to sustain manufacturing.

“The idea to cut this is contradictory to President Trump’s agenda to boost manufacturing jobs,” Zider said. “The MEP network is vital to the White House’s overall agenda, we help small manufacturers across the nation.”

Health and Human Services

Trump’s proposal would eliminate all of the programs in the federal Health and Human Service’s Office of Community Services, including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Community Services Block Grant.

Vermont received $17 million from LIHEAP last year. The federal government gave Vermont more than $20 million in Community Services Block Grants that fund construction projects, such as senior housing facilities and local libraries.

In his remarks Thursday, Leahy singled out the elimination of LIHEAP as a particularly cruel suggestion.

“We are not a good and great nation if we eliminate heating assistance for the 6 million vulnerable households that receive LIHEAP help,” Leahy said. “21,000 of those households, in Vermont, are just now digging out from a historic snowstorm in our state.”

Amtrak Vermonter

Amtrak’s southbound Vermonter leaves the White River Junction station. Photo by Mike Schafer/White River Junction Productions

Transportation

Trump scraps the Essential Air Service program to save $175 million. This federal subsidy program helps connect smaller airports, like the Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport, to larger airports.

If the service is eliminated, Rutland’s commercial flights would likely cease.

Federal subsidies for Amtrak are scaled back. Trump’s budget calls for ending support for “long distance train services.”

This would likely result in the diminishment of Vermont’s already limited train service. Ticket prices could rise. And the defunding could imperil plans for restored train service between Vermont and Montreal, as a key line of track from St. Albans to Canada requires repair.

Trump’s proposal would also eliminate funding for the TIGER grant program, which recently distributed $10 million to support Vermont’s train service.

Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos

President Donald Trump poses for a photo with students of St. Andrew Catholic School in early during a tour of the school in Orlando, Florida. At left is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Photo courtesy of White House

Education

Trump’s cuts to the Department of Education would eliminate the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which was established by former Vermont U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords.

The program, based on a pilot project at the H.O. Wheeler School in Burlington, supports before and after school programs, as well as summer programs for students.

The plan does away with the $2.4 billion annual allotment for Effective Instruction State Grants, which supports quality improvement programs for teachers and principals.

The Trump proposal reduces accessibility to college for working families by freezing Pell Grants at current levels, scaling back work study opportunities and terminating the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant.

“College costs are rising each year, and any period in which we freeze federal or state financial aid means a bigger affordability gap for low income students,” said Scott Giles, president of the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. “We are concerned that once we see more details of the budget proposal we may see some even deeper cuts in that area.”

About 11,000 Vermonters were eligible for Pell Grants last year and received more than $39 million in federal support. Another 3,200 Vermont college students were paid a total of $5.5 million for work study jobs.

Trump targets the federal TRIO programs and GEAR UP, which offer college counseling and assistance to students overwhelmed by the complex application process.

“These programs allow VSAC to provide career and education counselors who can support first generation, low income students in nearly every middle and high school across the state,” Giles said. “President Trump’s budget proposes some pretty significant reductions in those two programs.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds the AmeriCorps program, would be terminated.

Since AmeriCorps’ founding in 1994, nearly $18 million in scholarships has been directed to Vermonters. This year, 340 Vermonters are members of AmeriCorps.

Arts and Media

Trump’s proposed cuts would weaken support for Vermont programs for artists.

The Trump blueprint would terminate the National Endowment for the Arts, which gave $600,000 to Vermont last year to support the state’s community of artists. Past recipients of NEA grants in Vermont include the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, the Weston Playhouse and the Sandglass Theater. In early March, the city of Montpelier received a $50,000 grant from the NEA to create a master plan for public art.

Alex Aldrich, the executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, said Trump’s proposal is the “third round of the culture wars.”

The Vermont Arts Council, which receives $715,000 from the NEA, would be a casualty of the Trump budget if it is approved by Congress.

Aldrich says that without strong support for the arts in America, “we will lose a piece of our society that we may never get back.”

Trump calls for the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in 2014 allocated $1.7 million in Vermont to subsidize four public access TV stations, including Vermont PBS. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave grants to 17 radio stations across the state, including Vermont Public Radio, which received $754,000 from the government.

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump shakes hands with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan at the president’s joint address to Congress in late February. Photo courtesy of the speaker’s office

Congressional Reaction

Vermont’s two senators both hold key positions on fiscal committees.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is the top member of the minority on the Senate Budget Committee, which considers the president’s budget before submitting its own proposal.

After Sanders and the rest of the budget committee members hammer out broad funding levels, the House and Senate Appropriations committees craft detailed legislation appropriating money in 12 major areas, from agriculture to foreign aid.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which aides say is traditionally the least partisan panel on Capitol Hill. Leahy is close with Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. The two recently collaborated on the Farm to School Act of 2015, which supports the use of local farm produce for school lunch programs.

“We don’t ‘Make America Great Again’ at the expense of middle class families and the most vulnerable among us,” Leahy said Thursday. “And you can’t make America stronger by eliminating the very programs that make our nation more secure. We are not a great nation if we abandon our work to cure cancer, or to bring an end to Alzheimer’s disease by slashing $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health.”

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in a statement that the budget reflects Trump’s values.

“President Trump’s budget sends a clear message: You are on your own,” Welch said. “It doubles down on Pentagon spending at the expense of the middle class, vulnerable families, seniors, clean air and water, scientific research, diplomacy and the arts. President Trump calls it his ‘America First’ budget. I call it an ‘Americans last’ budget. Like the budgets of his predecessors, this one is dead on arrival. Congress will write the budget, not President Trump.”

Jasper Craven

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