Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami about the health care package in play in the House, new unemployment numbers and gun legislation that cleared the Senate this week.
Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami about the health care package in play in the House, new unemployment numbers and gun legislation that cleared the Senate this week.
MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are considering a scaled-back health care bill that strips out a proposed payroll tax.
The House and Ways Committee is looking to fund a proposed health care bill with $20 million in revenue, a far cry from the $52 million in revenue proposed by the House Health Care Committee.
“I think it’s safe to say that the figure we come up with will be less than the figure the Health Care Committee came up with,” said Ways and Means Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais. “If that’s true, we’re going to ask the Health Care Committee to reorder its priorities to decide how best to spend it.”
Earlier this month, the House Health Care Committee approved a bill that included a 0.3-percent payroll tax, as well as a 2-cents-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which, together, would generate $52 million in revenue.
The bill itself was borne out of a proposal from Gov. Peter Shumlin, who proposed implementing a 0.7-percent payroll tax to close the gap between how much Medicaid reimburses doctors for services and how much those doctors charge private insurers. Shumlin argues that boosting the amount paid by Medicaid will result in lower premiums for individuals with private insurance.
Shumlin’s proposal came after his decision in December to — either permanently or for the moment — shelve his single-payer health care plan.
“We’ve been looking at the bill that the House Health Care Committee voted out, both looking at the spending part and looking at how the revenue will be raised, and I think there is, just speaking for myself, there are initiatives in the bill that I would like to be able to accomplish,” Ancel said. “Certainly, the investment in the cost sharing, the increased reimbursement for primary care, are things that the heath care bill attempts to put in place. The challenge, always, is how do we raise revenue for it?”
Wednesday afternoon, House Health Care Committee members discussed proposals that would reduce the amount of money to address the so-called “Medicaid shift” that would close the reimbursement rate gap between Medicaid and private insurers.
Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, proposed amending the bill from House Health Care that would do away with the payroll tax altogether, and would impose a 0.75-cents-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Till also proposed eliminating the exemption for candy from sales tax.
Rep. James Masland, D-Thetford Center, said that reducing the sugar-sweetened beverage tax to 0.5 cents an ounce could still raise $20 million.
Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, said the direction the committee will take on the bill is still very much up in the air.
“There are three questions before this committee: Do we want to spend money on health care? How much do we want to spend? And, if we want to spend money, how do we want to raise it?” said Clarkson, who later said she supported the $20 million figure.
Ancel said that, should her committee decide to reduce the amount of revenue as proposed, it would be up to the House Health Care Committee to decide how that money should be spent.
The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to take up the health care bill Thursday.
MONTPELIER — Emergency dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby will get a temporary reprieve from the chopping block in the state budget approved Monday by the House Appropriations Committee.
Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed in his recommended budget that two of the state’s four public safety answering points be closed and operations consolidated with the remaining two in Williston and Rockingham. The plan, according to the administration, saves $1.7 million annually and would eliminate about 15 of the state’s 71 full-time and 33 temporary emergency dispatchers.
Facing a $113 million gap in the 2016 fiscal year budget, the administration has insisted the consolidation is necessary to help reduce spending in the budget.
But the House Appropriations Committee sought a way to keep all four dispatch centers open, even temporarily, following strong push back from the Vermont State Employees Association and first responders from around the state. Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said the the committee’s plan will keep the PSAPs in Rutland and Derby open until at least Sept. 15.
The House plan uses $425,000 from the state’s Universal Service Fund, which assesses a 2 percent fee on telecommunications services to supports Vermont’s Enhanced E-911 program. It was approved by the committee unanimously.
“Although it is not our preference to use that money for anything other than, specifically, 911 call taking, this was closely related enough,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It is strictly one-time, USF money that keeps the four PSAPs running as is until Sept. 15.”
Johnson said the committee heard from many people, particularly in the Rutland and Derby areas, who are concerned that emergency dispatch services will suffer under the administration’s consolidation plan. Johnson said her committee deferred to the Government Operations Committee on safety concerns, but heeded requests to allow those communities time to explore options to maintain local dispatch services.
“It gives time for local entities to try to come up with an alternative or a transition plan,” she said. “They asked for some time to come up with a local alternative, so that’s what we’re offering.”
The committee included legislative language in its budget plan calling for Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn to meet with first responders in the Rutland and Derby areas about how dispatch services could be funded.
“I think there were enough questions raised, and there were enough possible alternatives raised, the fact that there are potentially viable, home-grown alternatives out there, is reason enough to say, ‘Is there a different way to do things?’” Johnson said. “There are places all over government where we’re asking for a different way to do things.”
Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said the administration is reviewing the Appropriations Committee plan and would not be commenting on each component. Shumlin issued a statement Monday after the House approved its plan on a bipartisan, 11 to 0 vote.
“My budget team will take a close look at the specifics in the bill passed this afternoon, and will continue to work closely with the Legislature as the budget makes its way through the next steps in the House and on to the Senate later this session,” Shumlin said in the statement. “I remain committed to making sure this budget responsibly spends our limited resources to advance our economy and protect our most vulnerable.”
MONTPELIER — A proposal to consolidate the state’s emergency dispatch centers as a way to save money is meeting opposition from the emergency responders themselves.
Tuesday night, more than 100 people filled the House Chamber for a joint hearing of the House and Senate committees on government operations to take testimony on a proposal to close dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby and consolidate their services in Rockingham and Williston.
The proposal, borne out Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State Address in January, would reduce the number of state dispatch centers from four to two, a move projected to save $1.7 million as the state looks to close a $112 budget gap.
The proposal would eliminate approximately 15 of the state’s 71 full-time and 33 temporary emergency dispatchers.
The four dispatch centers handle approximately 75 percent of emergency calls in the state, including 215,000 calls in 2014.
During that time period, the Rutland dispatch center took 38,000 emergency calls, and 65,000 calls total.
The House chamber was filled with both legislators in ties and jackets, and police, firefighters and EMTs in uniform. Prior to the start of the hearing, Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, handed out candy Life Savers to the “life savers.”
Crystal Golden, a dispatcher in Rutland, presented a petition with 3,000 signatures from people in opposition to the proposed consolidation, as well as resolutions in opposition to the proposal from a number of towns, including Brandon, Castleton, Chittenden, Killington, Pawlet, Pittsford and Wallingford.
“Please do not put Vermonters’ lives in jeopardy with this ill-conceived proposal,” Golden said.
Donald Chioffi, clerk of the Rutland Town Select Board, where the Rutland dispatch center is located, noted that between the closing of stores at the Diamond Run Mall and the catastrophic fire that closed Rutland Plywood, the town has lost hundreds of jobs during the past year.
“Eliminating those 40 jobs amounts to kicking a community while it’s down,” Chioffi said of the possibility of closing the Rutland dispatch center.
Chioffi, and many others, argued that the loss of a local dispatch center will result in the loss of institutional memory and local knowledge that allows a dispatcher to provide emergency responders with the information needed to best respond to a crisis.
“Lives that otherwise would have been saved will be lost, and property that could have been saved will perish,” said Chioffi, whose thoughts were echoed by Killington Fire Chief Gary Roth.
Roth also heads Killington Search and Rescue, which is frequently called in to find Killington Resort guests who have traveled out of bounds and become lost.
He said the consolidation of the state’s dispatch centers — formally referred to as public safety answering points, or PSAPS — will impact his organizations’ rescue efforts.
“The consolidation of PSAPs will affect my town,” Roth said.
“Their ability to track down people in the back country, getting us to small back roads for fires and emergency for fires and emergency, would be lost.”
Supporters of the consolidation plan, such as Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, have argued that ever-improving technology will allow two dispatch centers to handle the same volume of emergency calls as four dispatch centers.
Lt. Rodney Pulsifer with the Brandon Police Department cautioned against relying on technology so much.
“Technology does fail,” said Pulsifer, himself a former emergency dispatcher. “I know how tense and stressful being a dispatcher will be. It doesn’t make sense, that with the amount of stress that is involved, that you would eliminate positions and put more stress on those people.”
MONTPELIER — The House’s path to closing the state’s $113 million budget gap is becoming more clear after a new framework was revealed Friday by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson.
Johnson, D-South Hero, in her first year leading Appropriations, unveiled her own budget proposal the committee will use to finalize its 2016 fiscal year spending plan. It incorporates many of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ideas to close the original $94 million hole the state faced in January, and incorporates new ideas for the additional $18.6 million needed after a revenue downgrade in late January.
Some of Johnson’s ideas are taken from a list of potential cuts totaling $29 million that lawmakers crafted with the Shumlin administration. House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said Monday that list of potential cuts “is appropriate to use” to close the gap.
Among the cuts used by Johnson in her budget proposal are:
— $5 million reduction for Vermont Health Connect, including subsidies
— Eliminating a $6 million state contribution to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
— Closing the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, for a $820,000 savings in both the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years
— A $1 million reduction in funding for the Vermont Veterans Home
— A $1 million reduction in funding for the Department of Information and Innovation
— A $560,000 reduction in funding for Vermont PBS split over the next two years
In total, Johnson’s proposal makes about $57 million in general fund cuts. It would incorporate $10.8 million labor savings the administration is seeking from state employees and also consolidate four emergency dispatch centers down to two.
Johnson’s proposal would utilize more than $20 million one-time or short-term funding sources. About $5 million in reserve funds would be tapped to help close the gap. It also would shift $4.8 million in spending for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to the capital bill to be raised through bonds. Another $1.7 million would be generated by leasing prison beds to the U.S. Marshal Service.
Whatever proposal the Appropriations Committee settles on will be paired with a revenue package fine-tuned by the House Ways and Means Committee. Smith, D-Morrisville, said the House will likely move forward with a revenue package of $35 million.
It will include, Smith said, a Shumlin proposal to eliminate the ability to deduct the previous year’s state and local taxes for taxpayers who itemize deductions. That will generate an additional $15 million tax revenue.
The House will look to also cap the amount of all itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction, according to Smith. That will raise about $18 million in additional revenue. Another $2 million in a separate fee bill will generate the remaining revenue to help balance the general fund.
Smith said he supports the framework of Johnson’s proposal which will help the committee finalize its plan this week, including the use of reserve funds.
“I do think that the framework that she’s put forward, it works. I think we both have been trying to figure out ways to bring down the amount of one-time money that is used, recognizing that next year could be difficult as well. At this point in time, I think she’s done about as good of a job as she can limiting the use one-time money,” he said. “I think it is appropriate to use (reserve funds) given the challenge that we face as long as we’re thinking strategically how we might replace it … in outgoing years.”
Smith and other House leaders are still planning to finalize a budget plan this week, but additional time will be taken if needed, he said.
“My view is that if something comes up I’d rather get it right than get it done fast. I think that we’re on target right now for the completion of the budget by the end of the week with consideration of the full House next week,” Smith said.
Read Johnson’s budget outline below:
Vermont Press Bureau reporter Josh O’Gorman and bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss guns, a sugar tax, new budget proposals and education in this week’s episode.
Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau Neal P. Goswami about a House Health Care Committee bill, the state budget and gun legislation.
MONTPELIER — Advocates for children, the arts and the disabled were among nearly 100 people who turned out for a hearing Thursday on $29 million in proposed cuts to the state budget.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee heard from representatives from host of organizations on a list of cuts released in February to enable the state to close its $112 million budget shortfall. The cuts range from the drastic — closing the Vermont Veterans’ Home and Windsor prison — to charging state employees to park when they come to work.
“This is very unusual to have a hearing at this time in the process,” said Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero. “The list you have seen, which why you are here, is an open brain-storming list. It’s not the sort of list that usually goes public.”
Karen Taylor-Mitchell, executive director of Governor’s Institutes of Vermont, came to the hearing with students from U-32 High School in East Montpelier and Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend, as well as a 1,200-signature-strong petition asking the state not cut the program’s funding.
“We reach out to communities that do not have access to educational opportunities of their own,” said Taylor-Mitchell, noting the program offers opportunities in poor and rural areas, such as enabling a student to study engineering, even if the courses aren’t offered at the local school.
“If funding is cut, we will become a tuition-funded program that will leave rural and poor students behind,” Taylor-Mitchell said.
Karen Schwartz, executive director of the Vermont Developmental Disability Council — which is part of the state Agency of Human Services — spoke of the impact eight years of rescissions has had on her program.
“I ask you to consider the cumulative effect of the rescissions over the years,” said Schwartz, who noted that, in face of constant cuts, the number of people her program serves has risen from 1,700 to 2,800, while the number of people overseeing the administration of services has shrunk from 12 to 4.5.
“All people count,” Schwartz said. “It’s a wise use of money to make sure everyone is treated with dignity.”
On the arts front, Victoria Young, chairwoman of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, discussed how a 20-percent cut in the aid it receives from the state will result in a smaller orchestra better suited to chamber music than full-symphonic compositions.
Young also noted her organization would reduce its youth programs, which, for some students, fill a gap as schools around the state reduce their music programs.
Bruce Bouchard, executive director of the Paramount Theatre, spoke of the $90,000 his theater received from the Vermont Arts Council, which allowed for the installation of a high-definition system to broadcast everything from opera to the Superbowl.
“We are considered the centerpiece of the cultural renaissance of Rutland, Vermont,” Bouchard said. “None of this would have happened without money from the Vermont Arts Council.”
Raul Rodriguez, of Salisbury, discussed coming out of prison and his positive experience with the Turning Point Center of Addison County, which is among the recovery centers from around the state whose funds could be cut.
“It’s given me a way of life,” Rodriguez said. “It’s taught me to be selfless, not selfish.”
MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration has asked state agencies and departments to identify up to 325 state jobs to be cut to obtain $10.8 million in labor savings.
Agency of Administration Justin Johnson made the request in a memo sent to agency secretaries and department commissioners Wednesday. The memo was first reported Thursday by Seven Days.
The administration is seeking the labor savings to help balance the 2016 fiscal year budget, which has a hole of about $113 million because revenues are rising slower than the budget’s rate of growth. Officials have asked the Vermont State Employees Association to open the union’s existing labor contract to avoid job cuts, but the union has refused to do so.
The administration is looking to nix a 2.5 percent cost of living increase due to state employees during the 2016 fiscal year, and slow down so-called “step increases,” which average out to about a 1.7 percent additional pay increase for state employees annually.
Because the union is unwilling to renegotiate, job cuts will be needed, according to Johnson.
“It seems unlikely that the State’s labor contract will be reopened as part of the solution to balancing the budget. This situation leaves me with no alternative but to begin planning for a significant reduction in force across all sectors ofVermont state government to be effective July 2015, the start of the new fiscal year,” Johnson wrote in his memo.
The number of job cuts needed ranges from 150 to 325, depending on the positions. On average, the state’s general fund covers about 40 percent of the cost for each position. Each position, including salary and benefits, has an average cost of $83,000.
Johnson asked that positions be identified by March 16, and that vacant positions be considered first.
The Agency of Human Services, the largest state agency, has been asked to achieve the most savings — more than $4.5 million. The Agencies of Natural Resources, Public Safety and Administration must identify more than $1 million in saves each.
See the memo and the administration’s target reductions below:
MONTPELIER — The 2016 fiscal year state budget the House considers is likely to include $35 million in new revenue raised through changes in the tax code, according to House Speaker Shap Smith.
That amount is consistent with what Gov. Peter Shumlin recommended in his budget, which was presented to lawmakers in January, the Democratic speaker said in an interview Thursday. But the House plan will likely also look to cap itemized tax deductions to raise additional tax revenue from wealthier Vermonters, he said.
“The governor’s original budget relied on $35 million of new revenue and we are looking at that amount of revenue to balance the budget that the governor presented, as well as the additional … $18 million that was necessitated by the revenue downgrade. We’re continuing to rely on the need to raise $35 million in new revenue,” Smith said.
The 2016 fiscal year budget has a current hole of about $113 million. After raising $35 million revenue, lawmakers will need to make about $78 million in cuts.
The House, Smith said, will use the governor’s proposal to eliminate a current policy that allows taxpayers who itemize deductions to deduct their previous year’s state and local tax liability from their taxable income. But the House will look to go even further and cap all itemized deductions at two-and-a-half times the standard deduction. For a couple filing jointly that would be about $31,000.
Those two measures would raise $32.4 million, Sara Teachout, a fiscal analyst with the Joint Fiscal Office, told the House Ways and Means Committee Thursday. Revenue included in a fee bill makes up the additional general fund revenue needed to hit the $35 million target.
Smith said he did not want to commit to that plan before the committee fully considers it, but said he supports it.
“I think that given the reductions that we’re making in the budget and the fact that it largely impacts people at the lower end of the income ladder that it’s fair to ask those at the upper end of the income ladder to pitch in to solve the problem, and through capping the itemized deductions I think we could do that,” he said.
According to Teachout, Vermonters earning $75,000 or less would chip in an additional $3.91 million under the proposal. Vermonters earning $75,000 or more would contribute an additional $28.48 million in tax revenue.
According to data Teachout provided the Ways and Means Committee Thursday, about 84,000 of Vermont’s 310,389 tax filers would see a tax increase. But the increases would be minimal for low- and middle-income Vermonters. People earning $75,000 or less would see their tax bills rise by $144 or less, on average. The state’s 355 filers earning $1 million or more would see an average tax increase of $18,603.
Smith said limiting deductions will put Vermont more in line with tax policy in most states.
“They often times don’t allow the itemized deductions that we do. I think it moves us closer to what other states do,” he said.
Exactly where the House will look to make budget cuts is still evolving, Smith said. However, some of Shumlin’s recommendations are likely to be used, including cuts to the state’s assistance program known as Reach Up and to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and through the consolidation of emergency dispatch centers.
The House will also look to include $10.8 million in labor savings from the state’s work force, according to Smith.
“Under any circumstance in balancing this budget it’s going to require some labor savings,” he said.
The administration ratcheted up pressure on the Vermont State Employees Association this week in its effort to obtain the labor savings by requesting that agencies and departments identify up to 325 positions to be cut. The administration has asked the union to reopen its contract to negotiate the savings without job cuts, but the union has so far refused to do so.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee held a public hearing Thursday on a list of potential cuts totaling $29 million. The list features a range of ideas, but most would not provide immediate savings for the 2016 fiscal year, Smith said. Many of those ideas could be used to address future budget gaps, including in 2017, which faces a shortfall of about $45 million.
Smith said the Appropriations Committee, led by Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, will use the list as needed.
“I really do have confidence that that committee will make the right recommendations that need to be done to balance the budget. I really rely heavily … on that committee to make the right decisions,” he said.
The final House plan must pass muster with both the administration and the Senate. Smith said there are ongoing conversations with both, but areas of disagreement will be addressed when the Senate considers the House version.
“I don’t think that we have identified, sort of, the areas of tension yet. I don’t think we’ll have a good sense of that until it gets over to the Senate,” he said.
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MONTPELIER — A list of potential budget cuts totaling about $29 million was revealed Thursday by the Shumlin administration and key lawmakers that may be used to help close a budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year that has grown larger during this legislative session.
The list of cuts, characterized by Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon as a list of “brainstorming ideas,” includes far-fetched ideas such as reducing the 150-member House to 120 members. It also includes painful reductions to the state’s online health insurance marketplace and premium subsidies that many Vermonters rely on.
The list, revealed at a House Appropriations Committee meeting Thursday afternoon, prompted Chairwoman Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, to note that lawmakers and the administration would need to take a “good, hard look at a lot of our loyalties and core values.”
“I just want to acknowledge how incredibly difficult this is,” she said.
The list, which also includes the possibility of closing the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington, was compiled by administration officials including Reardon and Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson, as well as Johnson, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, and analysts with the Joint Fiscal Office.
The legislative session kicked off early last month, when the projected budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year budget was $94 million. But a revenue downgrade just weeks later made it balloon to at least $112 million. It could grow even more if lawmakers do not sign off on Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed 0.7 payroll tax on Vermont businesses, which would funnel some of the revenue generated to cover the $16 million needed to pay for the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
A full story will appear in Friday’s editions of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
See the full list of potential budget cuts below: