Free Press: Panel Recommends Reliance on Federal Dollars

By Nancy Remsen • Free Press Staff Writer • February 17, 2009

MONTPELIER — The House Appropriations Committee agreed unanimously Monday on a budget adjustment bill that postpones decisions on social service cuts and relies on more than $50 million in federal stimulus money to cover revenue gaps and spending increases.

Gov. Jim Douglas had proposed about $3 million in health and social service cuts that would have taken effect this spring — along with relying on new federal assistance.

“Is it right to do this now in the last quarter of Fiscal 09?” posed Chairwoman Martha Heath, D-Westford, as the committee considered the cuts. “Or would it be better to put them in the context of the whole of the 2010 budget?”

“I agree with a lot of what we are doing,” said Rep. Robert Helm, R-Castleton.

Heath stressed that postponing decisions didn’t mean the cuts wouldn’t be made. “I’m not sure we are going to avoid doing all of this in the 2010 budget,” she said, reminding committee members not to make promises that programs were safe.

The panel also went along with a request from the House Transportation Committee to leave out of the bill any of the governor’s proposals to close a $5.5 million gap in transportation funding. That pushes off a final decision on replacing the Ethan Allen passenger train from Rutland to New York with buses for the Vermont end of the line.

The committee reached consensus easily on delaying proposed cuts to existing programs such as the Vermont Pharmacy Assistance Program, which helps low income elderly fill gaps in prescriptions coverage under Medicare.

The tougher choice was deciding whether to let a new program start. Reach Ahead is a program to provide stipends to families who have completed the state’s welfare-to-work program to ease the transition as they move to self-sufficiency. It was scheduled to launch in the fall, but lawmakers and the Douglas administration agreed to a delay until April to save money. Later Douglas suggested postponing Reach Ahead indefinitely.

Appropriations Vice Chairman Mark Larson, D-Burlington, said the program was intended to increase the success of the state’s welfare-to-work program and to help the state avoid a sanction for having too few welfare recipients working. It would save the state money, he argued.

Heath added that the savings the administration estimated seemed too high.

She proposed running the program from April 1 through June 30, 2010, with an interim report on its operation due next February.

Helm and Rep. John Morley, R-Barton, voted against starting the program, but didn’t put up a fight.

Helm and Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, disagreed with the majority about the inclusion of a provision calling for consolidation of probate courts in the four southern counties. The provision calls for immediate consolidation in Bennington County as a judge is retiring. Consolidations in the other counties would take place at the next election.

The committee decided against allowing the commissioner of public safety to use $300,000 in fuel savings to buy state police cruisers. The department had budgeted more for gasoline than it has needed because the price dropped dramatically.

The department, however, requested an additional $2.7 million to cover other spending demands. The committee decided to reduce this request by using the $300,000 in fuel savings.

The committee included a provision in the bill that would give the Legislature a role in decisions about the use of all the money Vermont receives under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“This is how we always do things in Vermont,” Heath said. “It is just making things clear.” There had been some talk that governors would have sole authority to make allocations of some federal stimulus money.

“It doesn’t really change anything?” asked Rep. Joseph Acinapura, R-Brandon. “It just precludes any misunderstanding.”

The committee also approved a restriction on future use of any surplus — should the days of revenue bounty return. Last year the Legislature established a revenue shortfall reserve fund. The proposed provision would restrict the amount of any surplus lawmakers could spend in any year and require them to bank the rest in the new reserve. The shortfall fund would be in addition to the Budget Stabilization Reserve, also known as the rainy day fund.

“It would make it harder just to spend the surplus,” Heath said. “We do need to be doing a better job of planning for the future in the good times.”

The committee will proofread drafts of the budget bill today. It will be printed for review by the full House on Wednesday with debate and votes scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS The House Appropriations Committee wrapped up work Monday on a bill that makes spending adjustments to the current budget. The highlights:
• STIMULUS MONEY: The state would tap more than $50 million in just-approved federal stimulus dollars to cover revenue shortfalls and unexpected spending increases in the current budget year ending June 30.
• HUMAN SERVICE CUTS: The committee postponed decisions on more than $3 million in health and social service cuts that Gov. Jim Douglas had proposed take place this spring. The delays affect seven areas, including Douglas’ plans to eliminate the Vermont Pharmacy Assistance Program, to cut payments to doctors seeing Medicaid patients by 4 percent and to reduce Medicaid payments for dental work from $495 a year to $200.
• REACH AHEAD: A program to help parents as they transition from state assistance to supporting themselves with jobs will start April 1. The governor had proposed indefinite delay with a $50,000 savings this spring.
• TRANSPORTATION: The $5.5 million shortfall in the transportation budget won’t be fixed in this bill. That delays decisions about reducing town highway funding and replacing Amtrak train service out of Rutland with buses.