Category Archives: Budget

House committees compete for gas tax revenue

MONTPELIER — The House Transportation Committee is in a holding pattern as it tries to figure out how to deal with declining revenues in a gas tax based on the price of the fuel.

Members discussed various ways to deal with a $6.6 million gap facing the transportation fund Wednesday, including adjusting the Transportation Infrastructure Bond Fund, or TIB, to help bring in more revenue. Committee Chairman Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, said the fund, launched in 2009, is bringing in less revenue as prices at the pump fall.

The fund is filled with a 2 percent assessment on the retail price of gasoline and a 3 cent per gallon assessment on diesel fuel. Brennan said those rates worked well when the fund was launched and gasoline was more than $3.80 per gallon. The average price of gasoline per gallon in Vermont is now $2.40.

Rep. Patrick Brennan

Rep. Patrick Brennan

“We’re not doing that well,” Brennan said. “The whole hole we’re facing right here, $6.6 million, is from the TIB.”

The $6.6 million projected shortfall was based on a gasoline price of $2.80 per gallon, however, so the gap is expected to grow.

“I would guess we’ll be up to ($8 million) by the time the next revenue forecast comes out,” Brennan said.

Adjusting the TIB would close the gap, but Brennan said the committee is essentially paralyzed until it is determined how a water quality bill out of the House Fish and Wildlife Committee will be funded. If it is partially funded by a 2 cent per gallon increase in the state’s regular gasoline tax, which typically only funds transportation costs, then the House Transportation Committee will likely scrap any plan to raise revenue through the TIB.

“They’ve got a big water quality bill that the governor has touted and now they’re implementing it and trying to find funding for it to the tune of $14 million,” he said. “They put the 2 cents in there.”

The 2 cent per gallon increase Fish and Wildlife may seek would raise $6.3 million. But that would effectively kill any political will to raise additional funds through the TIB, according to Brennan.

“I’m not raising two gas taxes in the same year,” he said. “There’s no appetite.”

In that case, the Transportation Committee will look to make cuts to transportation projects.

“If that flies, there’s no way we’re even going to talk about it in here,” Brennan told the committee. “These cuts will be real. It will be a fact of life at that point.”

Committee Vice Chairman Rep. David Potter, D-North Clarendon, said the committee will eventually need to address a long-term problem if gas prices remain low.

“The way I see it it’s a festering sore that doesn’t go away. We’re going to do this exercise into the future,” Potter said. “It’s not a popular thing but it’s the right thing to do to maintain our infrastructure.”

Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland, said the committee, if it seeks more revenue through the TIB, would be asking Vermonters to pay back a small amount of the savings they’ve seen at the pump.

“Perfect time to sell it. I don’t have any problem with it,” he said.

For now, however, the committee plans to wait and see if the water quality bill will seek funding through the gas tax.

“I think we’re in a wait and see mode,” said Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington, the committees ranking member. “We’ve got to see how it plays out.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Major changes to Vets Home on table to help balance budget

MONTPELIER — Major changes to the Vermont Veterans Home are once again being considered as the state looks to address a large budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year state budget.

Shumlin administration officials say privatizing the state-run facility in Bennington, or even possibly closing it, are on the table with many other ideas to trim state spending. But those ideas are only concepts at the moment and not serious proposals.

The 2016 fiscal year budget gap has ballooned from $94 million in early January to at least $112 million following a revenue downgrade late last month. The Veterans Home relies on several million dollars from the state’s general fund to operate.

The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

Shumlin administration officials and legislative leaders both acknowledge that making changes to the Veterans Home has not advanced to a point where budget writers have explored what kind of savings could be achieved by privatizing or closing the home. However, those ideas that were once ruled out last year by former Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding are back.

Current Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said this week that the administration and lawmakers are considering a range of ideas.

“In a sense, everything is on the table,” Johnson said. “The first thing for me is, does it get you any closer to the goal? I’m actually not sure that it does.”

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

“I’d say it’s no more or less on the table than any other idea that I don’t know if it gets you what you need,” he added.

Johnson cautioned that making any major changes to the way the Veterans Home is run remains a remote possibility.

“I don’t know enough to rule anything in or out. We still have this challenge of meeting the budget,” he said. “I would want to see the numbers. I would want to see the impact. I haven’t looked at any of those things. It’s not an idea that I’ve spent any time on.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin, in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau, also did not rule out the possibility of major changes to the home.

“I would say that our record shows that we don’t want to close the Veterans Home. We’ve been supportive of the Veterans Home. We want to keep the Veterans Home going. They deserve us. I do think that everything in state government has to be more efficient in order to balance this budget,” the governor said.

Shumlin said his administration has included funding for the home in the budgets that he has presented to lawmakers. But the state will need to find ways to reduce the impact of the home on the general fund.

“I have a record. My record as governor has been that despite the fact that the Veterans Home continues to need more and more money from the general fund, millions of dollars every year, we have supported the Veterans Home throughout my administration. We have done that throughout my administration and we have not supported privatization. We have done that because our veterans deserve that kind of treatment from us,” he said. “Having said that, we have also supported any plan … to try to figure out ways to ensure that we’re not constantly always losing money on the Veterans Home because the state can’t afford to do this forever.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he will oppose any effort to privatize or close the Veterans Home. He said the jobs it provides are important to the region.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

“My job, amongst other things, is to represent Bennington County and Wilmington and one of those ways is keeping excellent state employee jobs in Bennington County,” Sears said. “I’ll do everything I can to prevent the privatization of the Veterans Home.”

Plasan North America, a Bennington-based defense contractor, announced last week that it will close its Vermont facility and move it to Michigan. Sears said the area cannot absorb the loss of jobs at the Veterans Home, too.

“Given what happened … with the announcement of Plasan, I think putting on top of that losing those good jobs would be a critical damage to Bennington’s economy and to the economy of the region,” he said.

Johnson said the administration is exploring options to bring veterans from Massachusetts, were there is a waiting list for space at state-run homes, to Vermont. Massachusetts has resisted in the past, however.

The administration is not yet exploring how much money could be saved by privatizing or closing the home. It is not yet clear if they will be among the ideas that are further explored to determine savings, according to Johnson.

“What I expect to happen, after we have more conversations with the Legislature around options and concepts and ideas, is that the next step would be to start running numbers. I don’t want to just start running numbers on everything that anyone dreams up because we’ll have people have work on all this stuff that perhaps goes nowhere,” he said. “If we’re able to narrow down where we’re going to go then we can do some number crunching.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat with the Governor 2-20-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami discuss his effort to obtain an “all-payer waiver,” efforts to find savings in labor cuts and the Vermont Veterans Home.

Nixing raises and mileage reimbursements considered to trim labor costs

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration is considering a range of options to present to the Vermont State Employees Association as part of its effort to secure $10 million in labor savings, including eliminating scheduled pay raises.

With a gap of at least $112 million in the 2016 fiscal year budget, the Shumlin administration — and legislative leaders — insist that at least $10 million in labor costs must be trimmed as part of the effort to balance the budget. Administration officials say they hope to obtain the savings without having to take money away from workers that is already in their paychecks.

But, doing so would require the union to agree to renegotiated its existing labor contract.

Eliminating the 2.5 percent cost of living increase that is scheduled for the 2016 fiscal year would achieve about half of the $10 million the administration is seeking. That option is preferable to the administration because it would not require workers to give up pay they are already receiving.

Additional measures would still be needed, though.

The administration is also considering reducing the mileage reimbursement for state workers by more than 50 percent, down to 23.5 cents per mile. That would provide about $1 million in savings for the general fund, according to the administration. It would only impact those employees that use their personal vehicles rather than the state’s fleet.

Restructuring so-called “step increases” could also help reduce labor costs. State workers are grouped into various pay grades, with each grade containing 15 steps. The first five step increases occur every year. The next several step increases occur every two years, and the last group of step increases occur every three years. They average out to a 1.7 percent salary increase annually.

If the step increases are adjusted the state could achieve significant savings that would be ongoing in future years, according to the administration. Details of how the steps would be adjusted are not yet known.

Implementing five furlough days for state employees, which is also being considered, could achieve a 2.5 percent reduction in total salaries paid out by the state. That idea is less desirable, however, because it would be cutting pay that workers are already receiving.

Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said last week that if the union does not work with the administration to achieve the $10 million in labor savings it is seeking more than 400 state workers could be laid off.

Vermont State Employees Association Executive Director Steve Howard and Johnson said Thursday they are working to set a meeting to begin discussions. The union is not interested in any discussion about opening the existing labor contract, however, according to Howard.

Steve Howard

Steve Howard

“We’re happy to hear what they have to say. We’re willing to hear what they have to say. We have some ideas on how they can raise revenue from the folks who have had all the income growth,” he said.

Howard said union officials will announce next week several ideas about where revenue could be raised.

“I think our position remains that before you take money out of the paychecks of state employees who are regular working class Vermonters who are struggling to pay their bills, the administration needs to work on raising revenue from Vermonters who have had all the income growth in the last decade,” he said. “For some reason they are putting all their energy into how we can take money out of the pockets of people who are serving the public and protecting with all their strength the wealthiest people in the state.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin, speaking at an unrelated news conference Thursday, again ruled out tax increases as a way to forego the labor savings it is seeking. House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell have also said the labor savings must be a part of the effort to close the budget gap.

Shumlin said the state must lower the growth rate in state spending, which has been about 5 percent, to the growth in revenue, which has been about 3 percent.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to reporters during a  recent news conference.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to reporters during a recent news conference.

“I would caution us from thinking that we can turn to Vermonters when they’re struggling to pay their bills, when they’re frustrated that their incomes aren’t going up despite the recovery. I would caution us from believing that we can tax our way out of this problem,” Shumlin said. “Revenue will not solve our problems. We’ve got to make the tough choices … of actually matching our appetite for spending with the money that’s coming through the door.”

Howard said the union will continue to resist efforts to seek the cuts from state workers.

“The administration has set up a false choice. They have said, ‘Look, state employees, you can cut off your left hand or you can cut off your right hand. That’s not the right way. That’s not the right choice,” Howard said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Marijuana bill revealed but not expected to move this year

MONTPELIER — Legislation to legalize marijuana in Vermont was unveiled at the State House Tuesday, but a key lawmaker said it will not be taken up this year.

Chittenden County Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and Democrat, has drafted a bill that would allow Vermont residents 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, two mature plants, seven immature plants and any additional marijuana produced by the plants. Growing would only be allowed indoors.

Under the legislation, nonresidents could possess one-quarter of an ounce of marijuana. Criminal penalties would remain in place for anyone possessing more than the amount allowed under. Penalties would also remain in place for anyone possessing marijuana that is under the age of 21.

Edible marijuana products would be allowed, but those products would not be allowed to appeal to people under the age of 21. It would also prohibit edible marijuana products from mimicking similar products that do not contain marijuana.

Sen. David Zuckerman

Sen. David Zuckerman

The bill has been anticipated for some time following a RAND study released last month that showed the state could reap significant revenue if it legalizes marijuana.

A delegation, including Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, recently traveled to Colorado to learn about that state’s legalization efforts. Upon returning, however, Flynn noted that officials in Colorado believed the state moved too quickly to legalize. They were forced by a ballot initiative. In Vermont, some hope to legalize the drug through legislation.

Any significant progress this year was ruled out Tuesday by Sen. Dick Sears, the Bennington County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would need to make its way through his committee, but Sears said Tuesday that he will not take it up this year.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

Zuckerman’s bill would create the Board of Marijuana Control within the Department of Public Safety to adopt rules governing the cultivation and sale of pot. It would also be responsible for administering a registration program for places that sell the drug. Zuckerman has proposed that the board consist of five members appointed by the governor, and that a director be hired to oversee operations.

The board would also create the regulatory structure for cultivation, production, testing and sale of marijuana.

Only nonprofit dispensaries or benefit corporations would be allowed to register with the board as a cultivator, product manufacturer, testing laboratory retailer or lounge, under the legislation. Registration of such groups would begin no later than Sept. 15, 2016.

The legalization of marijuana, under the legislation, would provide revenue to the state through a series of excise taxes and fees. Zuckerman proposed a $2,000 application fee for marijuana establishments and an annual registration fee ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. Those fees would be used to implement, administer and enforce the new law.

An excise tax of $40 per ounce would be charged for marijuana flowers. A $15 per ounce excise tax would be levied on any other marijuana, and $25 for each immature marijuana plant sold by a cultivator.

The bill earmarks 40 percent of the revenue raised through the excise taxes for public education about the risks of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana consumption, and for criminal justice programs and substance abuse treatment. Also funded by the taxes would be law enforcement and academic and medical research on marijuana.

The remaining revenue would go to the state’s general fund.

The bill includes several other provisions, including:

— Maintain criminal penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana
— Smoking marijuana in public would remain prohibited
— Smoking marijuana within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or regulated child care facility would be prohibited
— Allows municipalities to prohibit or regulate marijuana establishments
— Allows landlords and innkeepers to prohibit cultivation on their property

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he favors legalization, but believes Vermont must learn more from the efforts in Colorado and Washington before acting. His office reiterated that sentiment Tuesday after Zuckerman’s bill was revealed.

“The governor’s bias is towards legalization but he wants to learn from the experiences of Washington state and Colorado. This is ultimately a conversation that the Legislature and Vermonters will have to have, and the governor is pleased that the conversation is underway,” spokesman Scott Coriell said.

Read the proposed legislation below:

VSEA pushes back on cuts, Shumlin unfazed

MONTPELIER — Members of the Vermont State Employees Association took to the State House Tuesday to make a direct pitch to lawmakers and the governor to abandon proposed cuts and embrace new revenue instead as they work to balance the state budget.

More than 100 state workers gathered for the union’s State House Day, hoping to ward off budget cuts proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin to various services, including emergency dispatching and educating inmates.

The governor has proposed consolidating dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby with existing ones in Rockingham and Williston. The move, the Shumlin administration argues, will save the state $1.7 million and not impact public safety. The union counters that it will cost dozens of jobs and have a major impact on public safety.

Shumlin, a Democrat, met with some state workers for a casual conversation in the State House cafeteria. They used the opportunity to share their concerns with the governor about his proposed cuts.

“There’s an obvious public safety issue if you’re expecting less people to do more work,” said Melissa Sharkis a dispatcher at the Rutland facility that could close.

Dispatchers in Williston and Rockingham will not have the knowledge of local neighborhoods or rural locations, Sharkis said.

“The more time we have to spend looking up locations if we don’t know the area, that’s longer that it takes to get people help,” she said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin met with state workers at the State House Tuesday and heard their concerns with his proposed budget cuts.

Gov. Peter Shumlin met with state workers at the State House Tuesday and heard their concerns with his proposed budget cuts.

Thomas Lague, another dispatcher, said reducing dispatch jobs will have a negative impact on communities.

“We know there’s a budget and we know that we need to trim corners, but if we want to grow the economy, cutting the service sector doesn’t appear to be the best route to do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bill Storz, who works in the Community High School program, told Shumlin that cutting the program, which provides education to inmates, is a mistake. It’s facing a proposed 50 percent cut in funding.

“I want to make first clear that the budget cut is based on declining need, or perceived declining need. We feel that there really is no declining need,” he said.

But Shumlin did not seem to be moved by what he heard. Just a few moments later he told reporters that the cuts are necessary to help balance the state budget, which faces a budget gap of at least $112 million in the 2016 fiscal year.

“It’s my responsibility as governor to balance the budget in a responsible way. We came up with over $15 million of ongoing efficiencies just in the way state government can deliver services to be more efficient and meet the challenges that we’re facing of over a $100 million budget gap,” he said.

Shumlin said people “can always make an argument for not making change.” But, he said taxpayers are expecting that he and lawmakers will find a way reasonable way to find savings.

“Taxpayers expect me to make the choices that are necessary to responsibly balance this budget, and that’s exactly what we’re doing” he said.

Shumlin said his public safety team has reviewed the plans to consolidate dispatch centers. It can be done without harming public safety efforts around the state, he said.

“We firmly believe that we can make that system more efficient with technology that’s advanced since the system we created a long time ago, and deliver better services,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin said his administration wants to continue to provide education opportunities to inmates, but the program is not currently providing that service in an efficient way.

“We’re not saying let’s not educate young people in prisons, what we’re saying is we’ve got 49 teachers that graduated 41 students this year. I don’t think there’s a Vermonter who would say, ‘Wow, that’s an efficient way to deliver education — 49 teachers, 41 graduates,” Shumlin said. “All we’re saying is let’s find the areas where government isn’t being efficient and not always turn to taxpayers.”

Shumlin has told lawmakers and others that if they don’t like his proposals they must present their own that provide equal savings. So far, those ideas have not been forthcoming, according to Shumlin.

“We’re always interested in any alternative plans. What is not OK is to say, ‘Just go out and raise taxes on Vermonters,’ and that’s what I’m hearing in the background here. What they’re saying is, ‘Listen, don’t change anything. Don’t make government more efficient, just ask taxpayers to pay more.’ As governor, I’m not going to do that,” Shumlin said.

Later in the day VSEA members met in the House Chamber to discuss the impact the cuts will have. Leslie Matthews, an environmental scientist with the Agency of Natural Resources said Shumlin is “extracting millions of dollars” from state workers.

“We’re here to say, no more cuts, raise some revenue,” she said.

The cuts to state services are on top of $10 million in labor savings that Shumlin hopes to achieve be renegotiating the labor contract with state workers. Workers are slated to receive a 2.5 percent cost of living increase and a resumption of “step increases” that would provide an average salary bump of 1.7 percent to workers.

The budget gap should be addressed by seeking additional revenue, Matthews said, not by asking state workers to forego pay raises that are in the labor contract or cutting funding for the departments and agencies they work for.

“That crisis does not constitute an emergency on our part, or obligate us to open up our contract that we bargained in good faith,” she said.

She asked lawmakers to “raise revenue from the people who can afford it.”

“We need to grow it from those people who have seen their income grow dramatically in recent years,” Matthews said. “We call on our legislators to reject the governor’s proposed cuts and instead raise revenue.”

Shumlin maintains that he and legislative leaders are committed to achieving the $10 million in labor savings.

“The best way to do that would be if the union would come to the table and work cooperatively with us to find those savings. We have to do it. There’s no choice. If you talk to legislative leadership, if you talk to me as governor, they’ll tell you, we cannot solve this budget challenge without getting some savings from our workforce. It’s just not possible,” he said.

The Shumlin administration has asked union officials to sit down and discuss the best way to achieve the savings. If the union does agree to make some concessions, more than 400 state workers could be laid off, administration officials said last week.

“There’s many ways to do this and that’s why it’s so important they come to the table. We can do this the hard way, which won’t be the best for them and the best for taxpayers, or we can do this by doing what we do in Vermont,” Shumlin said.

So far, neither Shumlin nor his aides have provided any specific proposal to reduce labor costs. Those details should be be worked out with the union, they said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Labor costs, guns and organs: Capitol Beat, Feb. 16, 2015

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman chat about the showdown between the Shumlin administration and the Vermont State Employee’s Association over labor costs, the state of gun legislation in the State House and a bill that would make organ donation the default option in Vermont. Also, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas talks about a few stories he’s worked on in the past couple of weeks, including a profile of Rep. Janet Ancel and Sen. Tim Ashe, the lawmakers that chair the taxing committees in the State House. He also updates on a potential second bid for governor by Republican Scott Milne. Lots going on in this episode — have a listen.

Check out recent episodes of City Room with Steve Pappas, which are discussed in today’s podcast episode:

Scott Milne episode

Paul Costello and Ted Brady episode

Capitol Beat with Peter Shumlin, Feb. 13, 2015

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Gov. Peter Shumlin stands behind his payroll tax proposal and expresses hope that state workers will negotiate with his administration to find $10 million in labor savings in the weekly podcast with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami.

Gov. Peter Shumlin inside his ceremonial office on Friday, Feb. 13.

Gov. Peter Shumlin inside his ceremonial office on Friday, Feb. 13.

Vermont House approves $2.8 million in fee increases

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Licenses to operate a restaurant or lodging or teach in Vermont’s schools all appear likely to get more expensive.

Fees for them and a host of other state services are due to go up under a bill endorsed by the Vermont House on Thursday.

Among the biggest percentage jumps would be for a license to operate a small bed-and-breakfast, with a capacity of up to 10. That license would increase from $80 to $150 — a jump of about 88 percent.

In total, the bill would raise about $2.8 million in new revenue for the state.

It’s won preliminary approval on an 88-57 roll call vote and is up for final House action on Friday before heading to the Senate.

Administration may cut up to 400 state jobs, official says

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration may look to lay off as many as 400 state employees if it cannot extract concessions from the Vermont State Employees Association that helps reduce the budget by more than $10 million.

Administration officials are seeking $5 million in generic personnel savings, and another $5 million or so in savings from the Pay Act, which includes state employees’ contractual raises, in the 2016 fiscal year budget.

Both the administration and the union are posturing before any formal negotiations take place. Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson issued a memo this week to agency and department heads declaring that all new hires must be cleared through his office. And the VSEA is distributing a petition that calls for no cuts to state government. It was the memo, Johnson said, that prompted his memo to slow hiring because lay offs are likely.

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

The union is under no obligation to revisit the current labor agreement that provided state employees with 4 percent raises in next year’s budget. But unless the union makes some concessions, a massive reduction in force will be needed, Johnson said Thursday.

“Worst case, you’re looking at probably 400, and perhaps, even a little more,” he said. “Obviously, until we’ve finished putting the final budget together, it’s difficult to determine what the mix between revenue and cuts will be.”

According to Johnson, the average compensation package for a state employee totals $85,000 — including salary and benefits. But the general fund only contributes about 40 percent of the cost, he said, which means a higher number of lay offs are needed to meet the financial targets.

The administration is preparing for a range of potential lay offs, depending on how much savings can be agreed on.

“There’s not a set number, certainly, in my mind. But it could, depending on what plays out, whether we get any concessions, be between 100 and 400,” Johnson said.

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office has projected a need to cut between 100 and 200 positions if negotiations between the union and the administration do not achieve any savings.

Union officials, meanwhile, say they are not interested in opening the existing contract.

“I think those numbers are, first of all, very disturbing. It’s disturbing for the people who will lose their jobs. It’s bad news for Vermonters who will have a hard time getting the services they need from state government. It’s also counter productive,” VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard said.

Union President Shelley Martin said state workers have already given enough in recent years. More than 600 workers were laid off during the administration of former Republican Gov. James Douglas. And employees have not received a raise in the past two years, she said, and all “step” increases that come with pay raises were on hold.

Shelley Martin

Shelley Martin

The labor contract calls for a 2.5 percent increase in the 2016 fiscal year, and a resumption of step increases.

“Our contract looks good because it says we get a 2.5 [percent] increase … but the actual picture is we never got a raise for two years,” Martin said.

Howard said members have indicated they are not interested in reopening the contract. Instead, the administration should look to raise additional revenue from those who can afford to contribute, he said.

“It’s hard for us to say to our members that we’re going to entertain taking money out of your paycheck while you’re already struggling … when we’ve got a political establishment that seems hell bent on protecting the wealthiest Vermonters. The governor needs to be a leader. The governor has leadership abilities,” he said.

Martin said the union is willing to “negotiate,” but “we don’t even want to talk about jobs.” Rather, the union can help find alternative sources of revenue, she said.

“We can come up with revenue ideas,” Martin said. “We do want to be at the table. We do want to be a part of the process.”

Johnson said he has extended an invitation to union officials to discuss how to collectively find savings.

“I expect they will sit down and talk with us. I don’t think they would not accept that. I just haven’t heard yet that they have,” he said. “I’m not sure what happens when we sit down.”

Exactly how many lay offs might be needed won’t be known until the budget is finalized, which won’t occur until the final day of the session. That’s typically when the governor, speaker of the House and Senate president pro tem huddle together to hash out the final details.

“The ultimate answer is probably not going to be known until we pass the budget at the very end,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I have to start thinking about it and we all have to start thinking about, but we are not making any decisions.”

A full story will appear in Friday’s editions of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and the Rutland Herald.

Administration restricts hiring, says union unlikely to help find savings

MONTPELIER — Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson issued an edict to agency and department heads Tuesday that all new hires within the executive branch must be approved by his office.

The move, according to a memo Johnson sent to agency and department heads, is the result of signals from the Vermont State Employees Association that it is not willing to work with the administration on finding $5 million in personnel savings called for in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget proposal.

Johnson wrote in his memo that he was “both surprised and disappointed to be approached to sign a VSEA ‘Fight Back’ petition that calls for no cuts in state government spending. The petition indicated that the union will not deal with the administration on labor savings.”

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

VSEA spokesman Doug Gibson said members are passing out petitions at work sites and to the public asking for signatures in support of their position against further cuts to the state budget.

“We are united, and we are calling on Vermont lawmakers to join us in seeking alternatives to cutting the vital public services that we all rely on every day. We also ask that you respect our collective bargaining agreements, the terms and conditions of which are mutually negotiated and agreed to by state employees and the State,” the petition reads.

Although the VSEA petition does not explicitly state that the union will not work with the administration, Johnson cited it in his memo as the reason for running all hiring decisions through his office.

“We are concerned that the union is saying “No” before we have even have an opportunity to talk. This approach leaves me very concerned that the administration won’t have an opportunity to take steps, in conjunction with the union, to help minimize any jobs losses while meeting a balanced budget,” Johnson wrote.

For now, all vacant positions must be approved by Johnson’s office. Any request to fill a position must include a justification for how the position “fits into department or agency priorities, is critical to the work of the organization, and why it would likely not be a part of any programmatic or staffing cuts going forward if that is where we end up,” according to the memo.

“The requirement applies to all positions across the executive branch — no exceptions,” Johnson wrote.

The restriction applies to vacant positions that are not already in active recruitment, and to all new vacancies that emerge.

Johnson expressed hope Tuesday that the administration and the union can find a way to find personnel savings in the general fund together.

“I’m still confident that we can sit down and talk things out, but I need their help to do that,” he said. “I can’t just go in there crashing around in the contract on my own.”

But VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard was clear Tuesday that the union is unlikely to agree to renegotiating labor contracts.

Steve Howard

Steve Howard

“Our members are not interested in opening their contract or seeing state employees be (laid off). It’s not in the interests of the state of Vermont,” he said.

Howard said union members want Shumlin to seek new revenue to help balance the state’s budget and is opposed to additional cuts.

“Our members are united behind the idea that the solution to this problem is to ask the wealthiest Vermonters to pay more,” he said. “If he asks millionaires to pay more, our members are all ears.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Johnson’s memo below:

Administration analysis aims to boost payroll tax proposal

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin on Monday continued a media offensive aimed at building support for his proposed payroll tax, releasing data that he says shows the tax will actually be beneficial to school districts and municipalities.

Shumlin said Monday that Vermont schools could see a savings of $3 million per year, and municipalities could see a savings of $900,000, if the proposed 0.7 percent payroll tax is passed by lawmakers.

The payroll tax Shumlin pitched in his budget address last month to reduce the so-called cost shift has garnered little support from Legislative leaders or rank-and-file members. But Shumlin has been pushing his plan to media outlets, and by extension, to the public, arguing it will help boost Medicaid reimbursement rates and pay for the expansion of the Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Shumlin’s plan would use the $90 million generated from Vermont businesses and $100 million in matching federal funds to boost Medicaid reimbursement rates to Medicare levels — about 80 percent of the actual cost of care. Boosting Medicaid rates means providers would not have to charge private insurance plans as much to make up costs, according to the administration.

Most Vermont businesses would pay less than $1,000 per year if the payroll tax is enacted, Shumlin said.

The administration’s proposal calls for using $140 million of the combined state-federal money raised through the payroll tax to boost Medicaid reimbursements. Doing so, according to the administration, “is expected” to reduce private insurance premium costs for businesses and individuals by 5 percent. While those premium are likely to still rise, it would be 5 percent lower.

The administration says most businesses will see a greater return from the premium savings than they will pay out as a result of the payroll tax. Schools and municipalities are among the groups expected to see significant savings, Shumlin said.

“Schools and municipalities spend a lot of money to insure their employees,” he said. “Under our plan, they will be asked to pay a small payroll tax but will see that amount and more returned to them in reduced private insurance costs. That will save schools and municipalities money, helping to ease the burden of rising property taxes on Vermonters and allowing municipal governments to use money they would have spent on health care costs to make their cities and towns even better.”

The administration released data Monday from the Vermont Department of Labor, Tax Department and the Agency of Education, as well as from a private consulting firm, to try and bolster its case.

According to the administration’s analysis, schools in Vermont are expected to pay $931.8 million in salaries next year and spend $190.3 million on health care costs. Under the governor’s proposal, schools would pay out about $6.5 million if the payroll tax is exacted. However, they would save $9.5 million if they reach the 5 percent premium reduction predicted — a net savings of $3 million.

Municipalities, meanwhile, have an expected payroll of $309.4 million. They are expected to spend $61.3 million in health care costs next year, according to the administration’s analysis. The 0.7 percent payroll tax would hit municipalities to the tune of $2.2 million, but a 5 percent reduction in premiums would result in a reduction of $3.1 million — a $900,000 savings.

Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said applying $140 million in higher Medicaid payments to providers against the $1.6 billion in private insurance premiums paid, would result in about an 8 percent savings in private insurance premiums. That assumes that each additional dollar paid into Medicaid would result in a corresponding dollar in private premiums, however.

The administration went with a more conservative estimate of 5 percent savings because not every dollar applied to cost shift reduction will result in the lowering of premiums by an equal amount, Coriell said.

According to the data provided by the administration, both schools and municipalities see a net savings if the reduction in private premiums is at least 4 percent. However, if the reduction only amounts to 3 percent, schools would see a net loss of $813,000, while municipalities would see a net loss of $327,000.

Speaker of the House Shap Smith was unavailable to comment Monday, according to his aid, Dylan Giambatista. He said Smith would ask the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office to review the administration’s data.

“We really haven’t had a chance … to take a look at the numbers,” he said.

Additional analysis is expected to be completed to gauge the impact on the state’s payroll, Coriell said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

See the administration’s analysis below:

Video: Vermont This Week on Vermont PBS

Bureau chief Neal Goswami joins Alicia Freese of Seven Days, Taylor Dobbs of Vermont Public Radio and moderator Stewart Ledbetter on this week’s show.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 2-6-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss Medicaid and vaccinations. And the governor takes a tough stance — choosing puppies over kittens as his favorite animal. He also explains why the Tax Department has temporarily halted refunds. Have a listen…

State revenues off the mark in January

MONTPELIER — General fund revenues came in more than $1 million lower than expected in January, the Shumlin administration announced Thursday.

Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said the general fund came up $1.28 million short, or 0.83 percent off of projections. The revenue target is based on the revised forecast that state economists delivered to state officials last month, which included a $10 million downgrade in the current, 2015 fiscal year, and an $18 million downgrade for the 2016 fiscal year.

Total general fund receipts for the 2015 fiscal year reached $797.34 million, which is $1.28 million, or 0.16 percent, below target. Still, the results are $23.84 million, or 3.08 percent, higher than the results from the 2014 fiscal year.

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

“Although we are slightly behind the consensus forecast for January, GF revenues remain more than 3 percent ahead of last year. While Personal Income Tax receipts fell behind the monthly target, they were offset by above-target performance in Corporate Income Tax, Insurance receipts and the two consumption taxes (Sales & Use and Rooms & Meals),” Johnson said in a statement.

The transportation fund finished January at $19.01 million, 0.68 percent short of its target. For the fiscal year-to-date, transportation fund revenues are at $147.21 million, which 0.09 percent below target.

The education fund, meanwhile, fell slightly below target in January, finishing the month at $19.30 million, or 1.07 percent short. Fiscal year-to-date revenues are $108.95 million, which is 0.19 percent below the cumulative target.

“Clearly we would have preferred to meet the January targets in all three major funds. However, we are just one month into the revised forecast period and will wait to see how receipts progress, as we enter the busy income tax filing season,” Johnson said.