Story & Video: Lawmakers divided over budget address

MONTPELIER — Depending upon whom you ask, the proposals offered by Gov. Peter Shumlin during his final budget address are either steps to improve Medicaid and educational opportunities for children, or yet-another call for new taxes.

Shumlin offered a number of ideas as he rolled out his final budget, such as new taxes for doctors and dentists to make up for the Medicaid funding shortfall, and and increased fees for mutual funds to offer savings accounts for every child born in Vermont.

Sen. Majority leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, compared the speech to a host offering prizes on a game show.

“I don’t think it should be anybody’s prerogative to stand at the podium like Bob Barker on ‘The Price is Right,’” said Benning, who took issue with the governor’s statement that last year’s rejection of an increase in the payroll tax resulted in federal matching funds being left on the table in Washington.

“We have a wicked opiate problem in this state, and this legislature has a wicked addiction of its own, and that’s its enslavement to federal funding,” Benning said.

Rep. Paul Dame, R-Essex Junction, took issue with Shumlin’s proposal to extend an financial assessment currently levied on nursing homes and hospitals to include doctors and dentists, part of an effort to close the state’s $55-million Medicaid shortfall.

“It seems counter-intuitive that we are going to raise Medicaid payments by taxing doctors more, and somehow, it’s all going to work out after we filter it through that lean, efficient Department of Health Access,” Dame said.

House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, offered a different perspective on Shumlin’s proposal.

“I think you’ll find the provider assessment is a pretty minimal cost to an individual provider, but the raise in rates for that huge proportion of their patient panels who are on Medicaid will more than outweigh the detriment of the provider tax,” Copeland-Hanzas said.

Shumlin’s proposal to increase fees for mutual funds to offer every child born in Vermont $250 – or, $500 if they come from a low-income household – toward college drew both support and ire among lawmakers and education officials.

“Governor Shumlin’s budget initiative for universal children’s college savings accounts holds the promise of a brighter future for generations of Vermonters to come,” said Scott Giles, Scott Giles, president and CEO of Vermont Student Assistance Corp.

“I think it’s great that the governor is talking about taking some mutual fund money and putting it into college savings plans,” Copeland-Hanzas said. “You want to talk about how to bring young families to Vermont? That’s a really good way to do that.”

However, Rep. Patricia McCoy, R-Poultney, argued that, when lawmakers passed a bill last year to create the savings accounts, the money to fill them was not supposed to come from taxes.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, gives his response to Gov. Peter Shumlin's final budget address on Thursday in Montpelier.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, gives his response to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s final budget address on Thursday in Montpelier. (Times Argus/Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)

“We were assured the monies for these savings accounts were going to be philanthropic. Not one penny of taxpayers’ dollars was going to go to fund this program,” McCoy said. “Now, we hear we’re going to have a mutual fund increase. My sense is, we should just repeal this law if we have no philanthropic monies behind it.”

During Shumlin’s budget the address, the governor took the opportunity to tell a story of how his father’s car crash left him with a $68,000 hospital bill. House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, used the story as an example of the way the state should limit a patient’s ability to sue a health care provider.

“We have to do tort reform,” Turner said. “If we’re going to realize any savings or the substantial savings that need to be realized in health care, we need to start looking at tort reform in this legislature.”

Republican candidate Bruce Lisman offered a scathing analysis of the governor’s budget record.

“Once again the governor is taking fiscal actions that are at best unsound, if not reckless,” Lisman said. “The governor’s record clearly has been one of growing the state budget faster than the underlying economy.”

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