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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  • ameliasilver

    I had the opportunity to sit in and observe this committee yesterday as they labored over these adjustments and changes and was deeply impressed by their thoughtfulness, compassion, foresight and intelligence. Well done!

    • chris wilmot

      Gutting Medicaid is compassion?

    • Edward Letourneau

      The labor was mostly about how to get more money out of people that are already taxed out.

      • ameliasilver

        Not so Ed. You should have been there.

      • Mary Alice Bisbee

        Yes, lower and middle class taxpayers are already taxed out, but what about the high rollers? Why are Governor Scott, and President Trump as well, trying to cut taxes for the wealthiest among us?

  • The budget will continue to rise and so will taxes. There isn’t a Vermont republican with enough competency or credibility to propose and defend a more responsible budget.
    Search local news and local social media sites about budget issues and taxes and you won’t find a unified VT republican message. You would be lucky to find a few comments and proponents. The republican party in Vermont for all intents and purposes is dead. Phil was most likely the nail in the coffin.

    • David Dempsey

      Ken,
      I wouldn’t say that all republicans are incompetent or not credible. The main problem they face is the large Democratic/Progessive majority in the legislature.

    • Neil Johnson

      100 million to non-profits…..might be 100 million right there. Are they non-profits or state run programs under the guise of a non-profit? Or just good buddies for those on the state level?.

      In our area the three towns have been sending $15,000 to a non-profit that owns a building they rent to the huge Vermont Medical Center. They say they “need” the money. People with accounting/business knowledge have brought this up consistently but nobody listens, how could you cut from a non-profit!

      Yet the non-profit savings account has increased $15,000 every year and after 10 years they have $163,000 in their savings account. But they still “need” our money. Won’t spend their own money, huh. I looked at their property management budget and it’s very, very generous.

      Bet this is going on the state level and every other town. Our town gives out $25k per year to non-profits. That’s 100k in 4 years.

      I’m not paying taxes to the state or town to give to non-profits. I can do that myself. I don’t need the state to give to the Salvation Army, Boys Town, TACF, food shelf, community fund, ambulance, etc. I already send them a check.

      • ameliasilver

        Wow I’m not sure where you live Neil, but what you describe doesn’t come close to the reality in southern Vermont where I live. Non-profits, which you disparage, do a huge amount of heavy lifting for the people of Vermont, and their employees are paid half what state employees are paid, to say nothing about the wages in the for-profit sector. The agency where I work is 501 c 3 non-profit, not a state run program in the guise of anything, and we help over a thousand families in Bennington County every year, to access childcare, medical services, housing, education, job skills and jobs. I’m an experienced administrator, dedicated to the people I serve, and I earn less now than I did when I was a Legal Aid Lawyer in the 1980s. Drop me a line and I’ll tell you more about what we do with our for the past 20-years-level-funded contracts, and you’ll call me a genius and a miracle worker, not a drain on anyone’s checkbook.

        • Neil Johnson

          This shoe does not fit you, keep up the good work. Others are wasting money right and left with effective programs.

  • chris wilmot

    Get rid of the land trusts. We would not be in this situation had we not allowed anyone with 25+ acres to avoid paying taxes by being in a “land trust…which they can renege on later and sell their property to be developed after years of tax free status

    • Matthew Davis

      You don’t have to have a conservation easement on your land to be in current use and receive a lower tax rate….

      • chris wilmot

        Good point- we should get rid of the current use tax deductions as well.

        • Steve Kirby

          Current Use is not just a tax break for landowners. It helps keep land undeveloped and helps maintain habitats for wildlife that are under pressure from growth. Without the tax deduction, many landowners could not afford their taxes and would be forced into selling, often to developers. Land in current use must follow a land and wildlife preservation plan approved by the State. The program helps keep VT unspoiled and beautiful. The other option is more like New Jersey.

    • Willem Post

      Chris,
      I think these owners have to pay the difference, i. e., the tax savings they accumulated over the years, if they sell their land for development.

  • John Freitag

    Turning an ocean liner takes time. The House Appropriations Committee is doing good work in crafting a budget this year with no new fees and taxes which is one of the pledges and a key reason why Governor Scott was elected. At the same time Governor Scott did not have a mandate to level fund K-12 education in order to increase spending on pre-school and higher education and he should not push it any more this year. We are in fact taking a step in the right direction and accomplishing about as much as can be expected in this legislative session.
    At the same time, there is a recognition from both the leadership in the House and Senate, and the Governor, that there does need to be more done to better prioritize and use the funds we are raising. Hopefully , while taking a break from new taxes and fees this year, there will also be a commitment from all parties to seriously look at longer term budget changes that need to be made so that Vermont will be able to meet our future needs in a sustainable manner. This should be the focus once the current session is finished.

  • Neil Johnson

    Question what was the 2016 budget?
    what is the 2017 budget?

    If the 2017 budget is bigger than 2016 how can we be cutting?

    For 16 years straight we have raised our budget in Vermont, two times we held in place with the same budget.

    There are very few states that spend as much per capita in tax money. We spend 2x more+ for every person than our neighbors in NH. Generally speaking most all states operate on 1/2 the taxes per person than Vermont.

    • DougHoffer

      You said, “We spend 2x more+ for every person than our neighbors in NH.”

      That’s not true. The best measure is state & local expenditures, because NH spends much more locally than we do in VT. VT still spends more per capita, but it’s nowhere near twice as much as NH.

  • Willem Post

    It is good some legislators are beginning to focus on finding inefficiencies.
    A million here, a million there, and soon we are talking real money.
    Eventually, they may find enough to pay for cleaning up Lake Champlain, if that clean up is possible.

    • Find inefficiencies? The governor put together a committee, by executive order, to plan to plan to identify inefficiencies. What a circus?
      Governor, please report on the inefficiencies found to date and the amount of money that is going back into the state coffers. Maybe Hoffer can find some ten year old data showing the state is efficient when compared to some other inconsequential state.

      • DougHoffer

        If you have data that is useful, please share it. If not, why should we take you seriously?

    • Jamie Carter

      “Eventually, they may find enough to pay for cleaning up Lake Champlain, if that clean up is possible.”

      We would need to stop polluting it first, then remediation could begin if needed once the polluting stopped.

  • JohnGreenberg

    I trust someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s how
    the political situation appears to me.

    Phil Scott campaigned on balancing the budget without
    raising taxes, and then submitted a budget which was balanced only by depending on towns to reduce THEIR budgets by roughly $50 million (in an unrealistic time frame).

    Republicans never stopped complaining – as they do here –
    about Democrats, Progressives, and raising taxes. They also complained when Democrats asked the governor to help them with the hard work of finding areas of the budget to cut, rather than relying on towns to do it.

    Now House Democrats have proposed a budget which is actually
    in balance – without depending on major gimmicks from towns and without any spending increases — and the same Republicans are STILL complaining abouttaxes which, according to all accounts, will NOT be raised.

    What have I missed here?

  • Ritva Burton

    I am sure that under the Agency of Human Services there are few duplication of services/programs that could be cut or at least combined with like programs.

    • DougHoffer

      If you’re sure of that, please share your insight.

      • Ritva Burton

        Look into the Flexible Family Funding program (these dollars are not used for essential services for people with developmental disabilities!). The total funds state-wide through designated agencies is probably substantial. Also Medicaid fraud cases for Personal Care Services have been in the news quite a bit in the last year amounting to thousands of dollars! Both of these programs need much more oversight. Maybe there is more of these “feel good programs” that should be looked into before spending taxpayer monies.

  • JohnGreenberg

    I trust someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s how
    the political situation appears to me.

    Phil Scott campaigned on balancing the budget without
    raising taxes, and then submitted a budget which was balanced only by depending on towns to reduce THEIR budgets by roughly $50 million (in an unrealistic time frame).

    Republicans never stopped complaining – as they do here – about Democrats, Progressives, and raising taxes. They also complained when Democrats asked the governor to help them with the hard work of finding areas of the budget to cut, rather than relying on towns to do it.

    Now House Democrats have proposed a budget which is actually
    in balance – without depending on major gimmicks from towns and without any spending increases — and the same Republicans are STILL complaining about taxes which, according to all accounts, will NOT be raised.

    What have I missed here?

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