Budget adjustment goes to the House floor

MONTPELIER — The House Appropriations Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to advance the annual mid-year budget adjustment bill after settling on how to appropriate the final $450,000 in available revenue in a give-and-take between members.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson speaks to the committee about the annual budget adjustment bill. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson speaks to the committee about the annual budget adjustment bill. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

The adjustment to the current 2016 fiscal year budget addresses about $85 million in needs. The majority of that — $52.6 million — is in the state’s Medicaid program. The budget adjustment covers the state’s $22.9 million share of the Medicaid gap.

“We’re funding the Medicaid caseload,” Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said. “We’re funding that commitment of people that are relying on Medicaid.”

The increase in the state’s Medicaid program is the result of an expansion of the program under the federal Affordable Care Act. Utilization is also up, likely because new enrollees are seeking medical services that they had deferred because of a lack of health insurance coverage.

The state money used to pay for the upward pressures in the budget adjustment is covered by money from the general fund and the Health Care Resources Fund.

The state is using several sources of money to cover the budget adjustment. After the latest consensus revenue forecast, the state is expecting to see about $3 million more in tax revenues than it initially anticipated. Better compliance with existing taxes is expected because of the Tax Department has modernized its software and will bring in about $1.2 million.

Another $5 million will be taken back from some areas of state government where it is no longer needed. Meanwhile, a surplus at the end of the 2015 fiscal year was saved and about $8 million will be applied to the budget adjustment. Finally, increases in the property transfer tax and a $1.7 million expected boost in cigarette taxes will bring in additional revenue. The committee also agreed to the Shumlin administration’s proposal to allocate $420,000 remaining in the Enterprise Fund to the budget adjustment.

The committee added an additional $190,000 for the Department for Children and Families to hire additional workers to address the growing number of children in state custody. The funding is about half of what the Shumlin administration initially sought.

The DCF funding was part of a lengthy debate within the committee Wednesday as they sought to divvy up the final $450,000 in revenue. Some members advocated for putting more money into DCF while others wanted to use the funds to begin paying down the so-called 53rd week of Medicaid in the 2016 fiscal year. Every so often the fiscal year contains an extra week of Medicaid payments. The extra week due in the current fiscal, amounting to $10.3 million, was not included in the budget.

“We didn’t find out about it until after we were out of here last year,” Johnson said about the 53rd week. “I don’t remember it being a conversation at this table. It was not part of (the administration’s) proposal at all. It was not brought up. It was not on our radar screen in this room. This is the first time the Legislature has had to act on it.”

Johnson said the committee had set aside $2.5 million to begin paying it down but Tuesday’s revenue downgrade eliminated that funding. The committee could not free up additional funds to cover more of the bill, she said, and essentially set it aside to deal with in the 2017 fiscal year.

“We looked and scrubbed and couldn’t come up with a decent amount of available money that we could turn on a dime with,” she said.

In the end, half of the remaining $450,000 was set aside to make a modest payment on the 53rd week bill.

“It’s taking a step, a small step, albeit, but it’s something toward the 53rd week,” Johnson said.

Johnson and others argued that state workers within DCF needed to see a commitment from lawmakers that help is on the way in order to maintain morale. Johnson said she read one resignation letter from a social worker who opted to leave the department because of the pressure.

“The person was a four-year employee that talked about loving the work she did, loving the place to work, loving the office and feeling like the caseloads were such that it was far too much responsibility for one person, given the weight of the cases and that that was an awful lot of burden of responsibility for safety to put on one person,” Johnson told her colleagues.

Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, said DCF needed to see “some kind of signal from this building that there’s a problem.”

The House Appropriations Committee works on the annual budget adjustment bill. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

The House Appropriations Committee works on the annual budget adjustment bill. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

“I think giving them nothing is saying, ‘You guys are whining about nothing, we don’t have a problem,’” she said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin is seeking additional social workers within DCF to help lower caseloads. However, after Tuesday’s revenue downgrade, the administration indicated to the committee that those positions could be delayed until July 1 — which would fall under the next budget year. The committee opted to include the $190,000 and let the department decide how and when to increase workers this year.

Also competing for funding out of the final $450,000 was money for domestic violence prevention and an increase for an existing needle exchange program. The committee scrapped the domestic violence program and allocated $35,000 for the needle exchange program.

The modest funding for DCF and the 53rd week of Medicaid was enough to secure the unanimous vote in the bipartisan committee.

“I’m not a happy camper but if this is what it takes for all of us to get there you can deal with me being unhappy and I’ll deal with me being unhappy,” Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, said.

“I’ll buy you supper some night,” said Rep. Bob Helm, R-Fair Haven.

“It’s a deal, and I pick where,” Hooper replied.

The budget adjustment also includes a $1.6 million transfer from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a state-federal partnership, to emergency housing. The budget includes $5 million in state funds for the program but also included a stipulation that the program could not cover more than the previous year’s need. Because of lower fuel prices that will leave $1.6 million.

The additional funding for emergency housing is expected to cut down on the cost of motel vouchers the state grants for people when other shelter is not available. Johnson said the budget “aggressively underfunded” the program last year.

The bill will now be taken up for consideration by the full House on Friday or Tuesday.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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