Free Press: Advocates Plea to be Spared Budget Cuts

By DAVE GRAM • The Associated Press • January 23, 2009

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A day after Gov. Jim Douglas called for a wide-ranging round of cuts to the state budget, advocates for groups ranging from children’s services to land conservation said Friday those cuts would be devastating and need to be avoided.

Several of the ten speakers at a midday Statehouse news conference demanded that Douglas and lawmakers use temporary tax increases to get the state through a period of declining revenues, arguing that the current economic downturn makes the public services targeted for cuts more needed than ever.

Douglas has rejected that approach, saying Vermont’s taxes already are high compared to those in most other states, and that financially strapped households and businesses can’t afford higher taxes.

Advocates for the elderly, disabled, children, the mentally ill, low-income Vermonters and land preservation made clear at Friday’s event that they would put up a spirited fight over the budget.

They recruited Rabbi Joshua Chasen of Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek Synagogue to lay out what he said was the moral case for avoiding cuts, especially in human services, and planned a series of vigils in communities around the state on Feb. 2 to raise their protests to a new level.

“We do not have a spending problem. We have a revenue problem, which can be solved by passing legislation in accord with the moral values which we teach our children,” the rabbi said. “How hollow our talk to our kids about sharing is when vulnerable older Vermonters are threatened with the end of V-Pharm.”

V-Pharm is a program, long promoted by the governor and now poised for elimination by him, that fills in the gaps in the federal Medicare program that provides prescription drugs to the elderly. Advocates for the elderly say the cut will leave many seniors facing thousands of dollars in new costs to stay on their medications.

Speakers at the news conference also pointed to the interconnected nature of many of the state’s human services programs and their impacts on individual Vermonters’ lives. Talking about cuts in individual departments within the agency — the departments of Mental Health, Children and Families Aging and Independent Living and so on — “masks and disguises the more profound cumulative impact of reductions within the agency,” said Ken Libertoff, executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health.

The result will be “a dismantlement of a social service system that’s been built over a quarter of a century,” Libertoff added.

Also Friday, the liberal-leaning Montpelier think tank Public Assets Institute touted an analysis by a Washington group dissecting the likely effect on the state of the federal economic stimulus package making its way through Congress. The groups said the state was likely to get $250 million in new Medicaid funding and $124 million in “fiscal stabilization funds” from Washington during the next two years.

“Before we decimate programs that we’ll wish we had in a year or two, we should wait to see exactly what Vermont will receive through the new federal stimulus plan,” Public Assets’ executive director, Paul Cillo, said in a statement. “The stimulus appears to be more aggressive than many people have been expecting. We need to understand it before we cut the state budget any further.”

Chasen and other speakers at the news conference urged that Douglas follow the example of the late Gov. Richard Snelling, a Republican who called during a 1991 recession for a combination of budget cuts and tax increases to get Vermont through the downturn.

But Douglas has been adamant he doesn’t want to see any tax increases aside from one already being faced by businesses that will see increased levies to shore up the state’s sagging unemployment insurance fund.

In his budget address Thursday, the governor reiterated his view that raising taxes is a bad idea. “With one of the highest burdens in the nation, raising these taxes now would slow a recovery and offset any gains that might be achieved through the federal stimulus,” he said.