Politics

Public weighs in on Vermont state budget proposal; VSEA argues against privatizing Woodside

Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

Members of the public urged lawmakers to support a variety of initiatives — additional grants for struggling businesses, pandemic aid for undocumented immigrants, and more funding for the Vermont State Colleges — during hearings Thursday and Friday on Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget.

There was also a request from the Vermont State Employees’ Association for lawmakers to reject the Scott administration’s proposal to privatize services at the state’s juvenile detention facility, the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center.

During Thursday’s hearing, Steve Howard, executive director of the VSEA, the largest state employees union, asked lawmakers to reject Scott’s proposal, pointing to problems with other services contracted out to private businesses, such as the prison in Mississippi the state uses to house inmates. 

“We look at Core Civic that is running our facility for us in Mississippi and hundreds of Vermonters who now are Covid-positive as a result of privatization,” Howard said. 

He also said the privately owned Brattleboro Retreat, a beleaguered mental health hospital that has repeatedly asked for financial assistance from the state. 

“We ask you to turn away from privatization because we know it doesn’t work,” Howard said.

The Scott administration announced its intention to close the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex late last year. The facility is currently only serving one young person.

The administration officially proposed shutting down the facility on Oct. 1. In its stead, the governor wants a new five-bed facility that will be operated by a private nonprofit organization. 

The administration is looking to upgrade an existing facility that could be used for this purpose. 

Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, told lawmakers on the House Human Services Committee Friday that he doesn’t want state employees to run the juvenile facility anymore. 

He cited a federal lawsuit brought against Woodside in 2019 alleging the “excessive” use of physical restraints at the facility. 

And he referred to an “unfortunate” incident in June, in which he said that Woodside staff “reverted back to techniques that led to the original lawsuit.”

“We believe that staff are not able to provide the type of treatment program that those children deserve,” Brown said. “We believe it’s better to go to an experienced outside community partner who has depth and experience in providing treatment programs for youth.” 

This week’s Deeper Dig podcast: The pandemic budget plan.

Others at the hearings advocated for more funding for their programs or causes.

Several members of the group Migrant Justice, which represents undocumented farmworkers in Vermont, pressed lawmakers to increase funding for an economic stimulus program for undocumented immigrants. 

The governor’s plan, which was included in the budget he proposed last week, would use $2 million in state funds for Vermonters who were ineligible to receive $1,200 in federal Covid-19 stimulus checks this spring. 

Migrant Justice has said that $5 million is needed to reach workers in Vermont who didn’t receive stimulus checks earlier this year.

Enrique Balcazar with Migrant Justice banner
Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice discusses the human rights organization’s settlement with the Vermont DMV in a federal anti-discrimination lawsuit in January. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Farmworkers criticized the state for failing to recognize immigrant workers earlier. 

“At the beginning we were very happy to be called essential because we thought that we were going to be included in the federal and state financial support,”Olga Cruz, a Vermont dairy farmworker with the group, said. 

“But it was heartbreaking … when we learned that we were excluded from all of this.” 

Jose Cordova, another dairy farmworker with Migrant Justice, also spoke. 

“Why did the state turn its back on us during the pandemic when you all know very clear that without workers, there is no production, that without us there is no food?” Cordova asked legislators. 

Bridge funding” for the struggling Vermont State Colleges System was also a topic of the hearings.

As it looks at options for restructuring, the VSC says it needs $23.8 million to weather a budget shortfall this year. 

Scott did not directly include bridge funding for the state colleges in his most recent budget proposal, but legislative leaders have vowed to find the funds. 

“What I have realized is that it comes down to one question: Is it important that Vermonters have access to affordable public higher education?” said Beth Walsh, president of the Vermont State Colleges United Professionals, the union representing employees at the colleges.

“If it is, this isn’t just a one-time bridge fund, it’s a commitment to the system that is here for the good of Vermont,” she said.  

People draw posters with pro-trans messages during a “Heck Yeah!” event at Outright Vermont in Burlington in January. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Some raised concerns about a funding cut to Outright Vermont, a nonprofit organization that provides services for LGBTQ youth in Vermont’s schools. 

The Scott administration proposed reducing Outright Vermont’s state funding from $60,000 to $20,000 next year. 

“Culling out this money from the base is dangerous and puts our youth at further risk of failing at the hands of our education system,” said Dana Kaplan, the executive director of the organization. 

Charles Martin, a lobbyist for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which represents hundreds of businesses around the state, asked lawmakers to accept Scott’s proposal to use $133 million of Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars to pay for economic relief for businesses hit by the Covid-10 crisis. 

The federal government gave Vermont $1.25 billion in April to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. 

Martin said while some sectors of the economy have been able to reopen, others including hospitality businesses “remain devastated.” 

“The majority of restrictions on these sectors will remain in place for the foreseeable future, as will the corresponding revenue losses,” Martin said. 

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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