Watch the Governor’s budget address live here:
MONTPELIER – Gov. Peter Shumlin has worked hard to claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism in his first year in office. But House Republicans are trying to reclaim that turf, outlining a legislative agenda Wednesday that revolves around financial issues.
Rep. Don Turner, the House Minority Leader, disputed the notion that Shumlin and other Democrats have been penny pinchers.
Based on his “inside information” Turner is expecting Shumlin on Thursday to present a state budget with a more than 5 percent increase.
“Vermont has not cut spending, and the budget is not sustainable, and we will not support an increase in spending at those rates going forward,” said Turner.
House Republicans, vastly outnumbered in Montpelier by Democrats, laid out their agenda for the session during a chilly press conference Wednesday on the Statehouse steps.
Their priorities revolve around financial issues – related to Irene recovery, education, transportation, health care – and making sure state government is efficient with taxpayer dollars.
They plan to introduce bills in the next few weeks to achieve their goals. Among other ideas, Republicans hope to use Vermont Housing and Conservation Board funds for an Irene recovery fund; demand answers to key health care reform questions that have been put off until after the 2012 election; push for a sales tax holiday on the anniversary of Irene; and relax regulations so state-funded projects are cheaper.
Turner also used the press conference to take a shot at the nonpartisan Joint Fiscal Office, saying he thinks it isn't nonpartisan at all and actually favors Democrats. Turner said he has tried to get a JFO staffer dedicated to his caucus so the minority party can adequately pursue complex financial issues. That hasn’t happened yet, he said.
“There is no way in today's government climate in Vermont that I can represent my constituents or these people behind me can represent theirs if we don't have the support from the Joint Fiscal Office or the (legislative) council that the majority does,” said Turner.
Having a JFO member assigned to his caucus wouldn't violate the non-partisanship goal of the office, Turner said.
“They don't necessarily have to be partisan, but they have to be dedicated to our caucus so that we can start with an idea and work it through the whole process with someone who understands what the end result is intended to be,” said Turner.
– Thatcher Moats
Peter Shumlin has announced proposals for “significant” state investments in higher education, a more aggressive push for renewable energy, and a prescription drug-monitoring plan aimed at curbing the availability of opiate pain killers.
Those are the main initiatives outlined in the governor’s State of the State address, which focuses largely on the stories of heroism in the days and weeks after Tropical Storm Irene.
Shumlin will close his speech in a couple moments by issuing what appears to be a no-new-taxes pledge.
“I remain determined,” he will say, “not to increase broad-based taxes on Vermonters as we begin to see signs of modest economic growth.”
That may not sit well with members of Occupy Vermont, a contingent of whom is sitting in the House gallery.
We just got an email from the Occupy Vermont movement, which is planning to occupy the State of the State address this Thursday. The email says:
Silently displaying their feelings about details of the Governor’s assessment of the state of the State, using hand signals indicating approval, disapproval or withheld judgment, Vermonters from around the state will line the House chamber to occupy the state of the State address on the third day of the 2012 legislative session.
Dressed in green, with personal messages for the Governor taped to their chests, Vermonters identifying themselves as the 99% will make themselves visible in a peaceful and respectful demonstration of their position at the center of government.
The point, organizers say, is to draw attention to the needs of the regular people of the state, who are hurt most by the budget cuts.
Secretary of the Agency of Administration Jeb Spaulding has released the November revenue results for the state, and things are looking better than last year – state revenues for Nov. 2011 were $78.6 million, or about 2.9 percent ahead of the forecast. That puts the state about $12 million ahead of the forecast for the fiscal year thus far.
“Naturally, we are pleased that General fund revenues continued a positive trend for the month and
through the first five months of the fiscal year. All four of the major tax sources – Personal Income,
Sales & Use, Rooms and Meals, and Corporate Income – are ahead of target and last year’s actual
results, for the month and year to date,” Spaulding said in a press release announcing the results.
The forecast was approved by the Emergency Board in July; the next meeting of that board – made up of the Governor and the chairs of the four 'money' committees in the House and Senate – comes on January 18 of 2012. At that meeting, the E-Board will also take up a number of mid-budget year requests for adjustments on the expense side, including a request for more district technicians from the Agency of Transportation (which are somewhat related to Irene recovery efforts, but the agency is also recommending become permanent), and a new need from the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, which is facing a budget shortfall. Irene accounted for $25 million in shortfalls in this year's budget so far, according to officials.
While personal income and corporate tax receipts, and consumption taxes like the Sales & Use tax are ahead of forecast, real estate transfer taxes are down, more than 30% below the forecast for November and more than 11% below the fiscal year to date forecast.
Transportation Fund receipts are up, which helps provide more bonding capacity for VTrans, according to Spaulding, while the Education Fund non-property tax income was ahead of forecast for November, but still lagging slightly for the fiscal year to date.
“It is definitely good news that the General Fund has exceeded target for the fourth consecutive month. However, uncertainty from the continuing global economic instability and the unknown extent of federal budget cuts require us to remain cautious. While the current results indicate a positive note for the current fiscal year (FY 2012), there remains a good deal of uncertainty for FY 2013. We look towards the January Consensus Revenue Forecast revision, scheduled for consideration by the Emergency Board on January 18, 2012, with interest and what we hope will be a clearer picture of the revenue future for our three major funds," Spaulding said in the release.
MONTPELIER – The Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, which will be run by a board of gubernatorial appointees and aid agencies, has raked in over $1 million in donations to help Vermonters affected by Tropical Storm Irene.
But the fund is still getting off the ground, so money is not yet being sent to struggling residents.
“It’s hard to say to people this isn’t ready yet,” said MaryEllen Mendl, the director of Vermont 211, one of the agencies that will administer the fund.
The fund’s bank account was set up just days before Irene struck the state on Aug. 28. The May flooding was the impetus for the fund, which was originally created by the United Ways of Vermont, the executive board of the Vermont Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, and Vermont Emergency Management, said Mendl. Because it was months after the flooding in May that the fund was even loosely established, Mendl said, it became clear it was going to be most effective for future disasters.
“We were really building it for the future,” she said. “We just never realized how quickly the future was going to come.”
The money is one of several pots of donations compiled from across the country to help Vermonters recover from the historic damage the Aug. 28 flooding left behind.
It is also one of the largest funds and is closely affiliated with state government.
The donations have come from individuals and corporations. Vermont Public Radio raised more than $600,000 for the fund, said Mendl, the largest single chunk of money.
A surprising number of donations – and accompanying messages – have come from Louisiana, a state that received a flood of donations after Hurricane Katrina, said Mendl.
“It’s heartwarming to read these notes,” she said.
Though about $1 million has been pledged to the fund, not all the money has hit the bank account yet, said Mendl. Funds likely won’t be available until after Oct. 31, which is the deadline to register for FEMA, she said.
This money is designed to meet needs left unfulfilled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, insurance companies and other groups, she said, and it is focused on individual Vermonters rather than businesses, nonprofits or people with damaged second homes.
MONTPELIER – Damage to the state highway system from tropical-storm flooding could hit $500 million, state officials told lawmakers this morning. And the cost to repair damage on municipal transportation infrastructure "is going to be huge, " according to Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles.
Preliminary damage estimates for state highways alone will likely fall somewhere between $300 million and $500 million, Searles said during a briefing to a panel of legislators.
That doesn't include the cost to fix municipal roads, where Irene inflicted similarly widespread devastation. As of yesterday, there were 1,128 road segments with some damage on the municipal system, and 207 of them remain closed, Searles said. There are another 132 damaged bridges, 77 of which are closed.
"There's a growing magnitutude of this storm damage that we can’t fully explain yet," Searles said.
From the Vermont Press Bureau (paywall stories):
More than 250 doctors, nurses and volunteers visited Montpelier on Wednesday to tell legislators why they think a proposed tax increase on health care providers is a bad idea.
Among them was Kristin Baker, who takes pride that the emergency department at Fletcher Allen Health Care, where she is nurse manager, is the only one in the state to offer specialized emergency-room care. But she told lawmakers that some of those services would be eliminated if Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed tax increase on hospitals goes into effect.
Already targeted by Gov. Peter Shumlin for an $11 million spending cut, Vermont’s mental health agencies are now fighting an administration proposal that seeks to open up the mental-health care system to free-market competition.
What's the VPB working on?
Budget cuts and revisions
Leaders in the Vermont House of Representatives say they plan to undo some of the cuts to human services contained in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget proposal.
Rep. Martha Heath, a Westford Democrat and chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, said she plans to unveil a budget on Friday that restores funding to some of the programs targeted in Shumlin’s fiscal-year 2012 spending plan.
“I’m sure it won’t be as much as some members of the body would like,” Heath said Tuesday. “But I’m sure it will be better than the budget as proposed by the governor.” Read more…
Efforts to overhaul Vermont’s campaign finance laws have been thwarted in the past five years by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, two gubernatorial vetoes, veto override attempts that failed by one vote, and inaction by the House of Representatives.
But a Senate committee is trying again this year to change the way campaigns are funded in the state, with the hope that a new Democratic governor will mean a new result. Read more…(paywall)
The Secretary of Administration has released the February revenue results for Vermont, and personal income tax receipts are still "mixed" after a January that was below the consensus forecast by state economists, Jeb Spaulding said.
February General Fund revenues were off the forecast by 5%, or $2.71 million, the report says. Because of refunds delivered to early income tax filers, the income tax receipts were actually negative, which also has Spaulding looking ahead to March for a sign on how the remainder of the fiscal year will go.
“We will be watching the individual and corporate tax filing season and the remainder of the winter tourism season closely. It is critical that the next two months exceed or, at a minimum, meet the targets in our four major tax categories (PI Tax, Corporate Income, Sales & Use, and Meals & Room) if we are to end FY 2011 with GF revenues at or above target for the fiscal year,” he says in the agency's press release.
The entire release can be found below:
Hundreds of people gathered outside of the statehouse at noon, today, asking legislators not to make cuts to mental health and developmental services in the upcoming budget. They chanted, "no more cuts" in unison. In the governor’s proposed budget, there would be $4 million dollars in cuts to these services. This rally was the centerpiece of Mental Health Awareness day at the statehouse
After the rally, a portion of the group went inside to talk to legislators and to give testimony at committee hearings — telling stories of how the mental health and developmental services funding affect their lives and to plead for the legislators not to cut this funding.
Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding just released the January revenue results for the state, which were below projections by $1.6 million. That means you can subtract $1.6 million from the roughly $26 million extra (which is the amount projected in excess of the original projections used to create the FY11 state budget) that Gov. Shumlin planned to carry over into the FY12 budget to help plug the budget gap.
Looking a little deeper into the numbers, the income tax receipts and the sales & use tax receipts were down, while the corporate income tax receipts were above the target. At the Emergency Board meeting in January, the state's economists warned that while revenues for the last 6-12 months have been doing slightly better than expected, they project that this probably does not signal a rapid turnaround. Rather, slow growth will be the case for the next year or two.
However, one month does not make or break the state. The full report:
Peter Welch has introduced a provision in federal legislation that might give Vermont a bit of help on meeting its budget – extending an ARRA (the stimulus bill) provision that allowed states to defer paying interest on federal loans to the states' unemployment funds.
Welch's office says this would save Vermont $8.4 million over two years, according to the Vermont Department of Labor. States would not have to pay the accumulated interest on these loans when the two years is up, either.
The fate of this bill, HR 650, which was introduced first in Jan. 2010, by Welch, is uncertain due to the change in leadership after last fall's elections.