Lawmakers pass budget bills

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers burned the midnight oil to pass budget bills and ultimately adjourn for the 2016 Legislative Session.

Members of the House and the Senate worked late into Friday night to approve a budget for fiscal year 2017 that amounts to an overall increase of 2.4 percent.

Lawmakers approved a spending appropriation of $2.46 billion in state funds, including spending for the General Fund, transportation and other special funds.

The appropriation amounts to an increase of 3 percent when compared with current spending. Annual growth for the spending appropriation has averaged 3.9 percent over the past five years.

Overall, the general fund is increasing by 4.8 percent, slightly more than the average annual increase of 4.6 percent over the past five years.

Not included in the appropriation is an additional $1.58 billion for pre-K-12 education, an increase of 1.5 percent when compared with current spending and an average annual increase of 3.1 percent over five years.

The vast majority of money for the Education Fund comes from property taxes; however, $306 million — or 19 percent — is from a transfer in money from the General Fund.

The budget calls for $49 million new spending, which is more than the $45 million proposed by the Shumlin Administration, but less than the $52.5 million proposed by the House and the $47.1 million proposed by the Senate.

New revenue sources include $20.8 million from increasing fees for mutual funds.
The overall state budget includes $2 billion in federal funds, an increase of 2.1 percent over the current year, and less than half the 4.8 average annual increase over the past five years.

The overall state budget for the coming fiscal year will be $5.76 billion, an increase of 2.4 percent. The average annual increase over the past five years has been 4.1 percent.

Critics complain the proposed budget has an increase that exceeds the state’s rate of growth, especially in light of the news Thursday that projected revenues for the current year are $14.7 million lower than projected.

House Speaker Shap Smith expressed disappointment with critics of the bill.

“Many of the critics of the budget never put forth any alternatives about how to cut anything. It’s easy to criticize. It’s actually hard to do,” Smith said. “I was disappointed when I put out a call to the leadership of both caucuses to put out plans about how they would reduce the budget, and they did not put anything forward that was really realistic.”

 

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, disputed Smith’s assertion.
“That’s just totally not true. We offered a number of bills that would have made an impact on the budget. The problem we have is, being the minority party, they (the bills) are tacked on the wall,” said Turner, referring to when a bill is sent to a committee, only to die due to lack of action. “Those proposals are still there.”

Turner pointed to a bill that called for a 5-percent reduction in the state’s work force by 2020 through attrition, a reduction of 480 workers and a savings of $25 million.

The bill had strong support among members of the House Committee on Government Operations, but ended up dying in the House Appropriations Committee.

The budget includes $71 million to close the so-called Medicaid gap, a reflection of the increase in the number of people utilizing the service. Approximately 200,000 people — one-third of the state’s population — uses some form of Medicaid.

Also included is $2.25 million – $1 million from the General Fund – to pay for salary and benefit increases resulting from the recently negotiated contract for state workers.

The budget calls for increase of $3.8 million for weatherization, an increase that is coming at the expense of cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which helps low-income Vermonters pay their heating bills.

The proposed budget includes additional money for child protection, with funding for additional workers with the Department for Children and Families, deputy state’s attorneys one additional judge to serve Franklin County.

Lawmakers are also appropriated $7.1 million for the state’s Choices for Care program, providing salary increases for people who are working to keep elderly Vermonters in their homes and out of nursing homes.

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

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