Vermont House budget writers close gap - VTDigger

Vermont House budget writers close gap

House Appropriations Chair Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

A House panel has closed all but $3,000 of a $72 million budget gap.

Lawmakers had already identified most of the savings before the Town Meeting Day break and whittled down the remaining $18 million this week.

A third of the savings were already in the Scott administration’s budget, including $4.5 million in cuts across state government and an $18 million reduction in Medicaid spending. Both the Legislature and the governor’s office anticipate savings from fewer people using the federally subsidized medical insurance program.

Rep. Kitty Toll, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said the budget does not include any new taxes or fees. It does however, count on $5 million from beefed up tax collection enforcement. The state has about $150 million in uncollected taxes on the books, and the House tax writing committee proposes to crack down on scofflaws.

Lawmakers found savings across state government from a variety of projected efficiencies, including $2.5 million in cuts to the Agency of Human Services grant program, which distributes more than $100 million a year to 1,200 nonprofits around the state.

“This was not a pleasant exercise, but we need to balance the budget,” Toll said. “We’ve always been diligent in keeping the budget balanced.”

The Legislature and the governor’s office have faced a budget gap of $50 million to $70 million each year since the Great Recession hit in 2008. As the economy has slowly recovered, state tax receipts have not fully rebounded.

Gov. Phil Scott’s solution to the problem was a hit on the education fund. The Republican governor insisted that lawmakers should find savings in the state’s $1.6 billion annual spending on K-12 public education. And he has demanded that the Legislature eschew any new taxes or fees, including new funding for federally ordered cleanup of Lake Champlain.

Scott asked the Legislature to shift about $60 million out of the general fund budget into the education fund. He proposed to save $15 million in teachers’ health care in order to bankroll pre-K programs and a higher contribution by the state to the University of Vermont and the state colleges.

The governor put the plan on a fast track: He gave lawmakers just two weeks to change the date for school budget votes in order to develop a plan that would have mandated level funding for local schools.

Lawmakers balked at the plan and instead chose to find savings in the general fund to resolve the budget gap.

The governor and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson were at a standoff over the past two weeks as legislators scurried to meet the money bill deadline, which happens to be today. Last week Johnson accused Scott of refusing to work with lawmakers, putting a gag order on state agencies and “shirking” his duty.

Yesterday evening, lawmakers got to nearly zero, mostly through proposed efficiencies in state government.

Former commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, Rep. David Yacovone, D-Morristown, found significant savings in human services programs.

Yacovone proposed that the state hire five employees to manage spending in the chronic care program which provides assistance to patients with significant, ongoing health problems. The savings? $1 million.

A change in contracting would save $2 million in IT services through the nonprofit Vermont Information Technology Leaders.

The House panel accepted $1.5 million in savings proposed by the Scott administration from a wholesale restructuring of the state’s largest arm — the Agency of Human Services.

Lawmakers plan to reduce state employee travel costs by $100,000. Fish and Wildlife takes an $82,000 hit and the International Trade program is reduced by $7,700.

The Windsor prison was on the Scott administration’s chopping block; the House plan keeps the facility open. Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, found $2.5 million in savings through the restructuring of a housing program for inmates that made up the difference.

The governor had also proposed combining the Department of Liquor Control and the Vermont Lottery Commission. Toll says the plan for merging the two state agencies wasn’t fully baked for this year’s budget, but she said it could capture $2 million in savings next year.

Toll says the House panel is beginning a two-year budget-writing process that will allow lawmakers in the second half of the biennium to take a deeper dive into the efficacy of state programs.

Anne Galloway

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