House advances annual budget adjustment

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House gave preliminary approval by voice vote Thursday to the annual budget adjustment bill, which will lower state spending in the current fiscal year by $12 million.

The reduction in spending is needed following a revenue forecast delivered by state economists last week that projects lower revenues than initially thought. In fact, the current, 2015 fiscal year budget is has seen a downgrade of more than $41 million since January 2014 — a 2.8 percent reduction in funds available to support government operations.

The budget adjustment, unanimously approved by the House Appropriations Committee Monday, uses $10 million in spending reductions to cover the downgrade and sets aside $2 million for use in balancing the 2016 fiscal year budget. It brings available revenue in line with spending, and sets 2015 fiscal year spending less than 1.5 percent more than the previous year, said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

“This budget brings general fund growth to under what average growth in the economy is,” she said.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

The plan approved by the Appropriations Committee covers increased costs for Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace. Overall spending on the exchange is rising by $28.3 million, including $14.6 million in state funds, according to Finance Commissioner James Reardon. It is the first time state funds are being used for operations related to the exchange.

The budget adjustment also includes $2.15 million in additional funds for the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington. And, it funds 110 new opiate treatment slots in Bennington County, which will free up space in Rutland County.

“Though overall spending is down, we were able to make some investments,” Johnson said.

There are several large reductions, too, including $ 1 million in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, $437,000 in mental health housing vouchers and $224,000 in cuts to the Judiciary, which is expected to decrease the availability of judges.

Johnson said a plan to cut $500,000 from the Judiciary presented by Gov. Peter Shumlin was scaled back. Instead, the committee sent a letter to the Judiciary asking officials to find ways to cut costs without diminishing services or slowing justice.

Floor action on the bill came to a grinding halt Thursday afternoon when Rep, Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, sought to introduce an amendment seeking greater transparency in exchange spending. Republicans said the amendment was triggered because of new state spending on the exchange.

House Speaker Shap Smith called for a recess to allow the Appropriations and Health Care Committees to review the amendment and provide time for the parties to caucus.

Rep. Mary Morrissey

Rep. Mary Morrissey

Morrissey’s amendment called for halting the expenditure of funds included in the budget adjustment for VHC unless Lawrence Miller, the governor’s chief of health care reform, provides lawmakers with:

— A full accounting of the state and federal expenditures through 2014 for development and implementation of the exchange
— Projected remaining development and implementation of the exchange through 2015
— Remaining balance of any federal grants awarded to the state for development and implementation of the exchange
— Projected expenditures for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 for the operation of the exchange by funding source and department

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said the amendment will force the administration to become more transparent and will provide information to lawmakers that so far has not been forthcoming.

“I think it’s a very good one if you believe in transparent government,” he said.

The Appropriations Committee substituted its own version of the amendment, essentially stripping Morrissey’s fingerprints from the process. The Democratic version, which was approved by the House on a voice vote, removed the threat of halting spending.

“We’re prepared to take action should we not receive satisfactory information,” Johnson said in an effort to placate discontent among Republicans.

The House later agreed to add the amendment to the budget adjustment on a 135 to 0 roll call vote. Democrats said they have already asked the administration for the data sought in the amendment and have already received most of it.

Morrissey said she is “appreciative” that the Democratic majority choice “to copy” her amendment.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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