By Xander Landen, VTDigger
The House passed a $5.84 billion budget proposal Friday, March 23, that lawmakers say addresses the needs of the most vulnerable Vermonters and makes long-term investments without raising taxes or fees.
Facing little debate, the budget bill, H.924, passed overwhelmingly in a vote of 122-10.
While representatives put four amendments on the table, none of them passed with the exception of a proposal by Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who offered technical changes.
“We are prepared for the future in this budget,” Toll said before the vote. “We could not make all the investments that we wanted or all the investments that you wanted but I think that we were really careful setting ourselves up for a better place in the future.”
The budget restores funding to several disabilities and health care programs that Gov. Phil Scott proposed to cut. Representatives also touted an expansion of funding for mental health services.
The proposal provides about $168,000 for the state to offer a 24/7 “warm line” — a free emergency support line for Vermonters dealing with mental health issues — and money to develop supportive housing.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said these initiatives will help address the “crisis” in Vermont’s emergency rooms, where mental health patients will wait for weeks because of a lack of psychiatric beds.
The bill would restore $4.3 million to a waiver program that provides support to more than 3,000 Vermonters with disabilities — $2 million would come from state dollars.
The House budget also kept a loan repayment program for doctors at about $308,000. In addition, it restores half of the primary care subsidy and payments to hospitals for medical treatment of uninsured Vermonters.
While the proposal restores funding to many services, Toll said the spending proposal is modest.“If you are looking for low growth rates, you are looking at this budget,” she said.
A breakdown of the budget by the Joint Fiscal Office shows that the proposed general fund growth is the same as the Scott administration’s proposal: 2.7 percent. The overall budget increase for the total budget — including the general, transportation and education funds — is 1.1 percent.
A separate analysis shows that General Fund spending is about $7 million more than Scott’s $1.59 billion recommendation.
Some criticized spending decisions in H.924 ahead of the Friday night vote.
Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre City, opposed a $827,000 cut to Vermont’s cost-sharing reduction program, which provides subsidies to help Vermonters with medical deductible and co-pay costs. Under the proposal, the program would go offline for at least six months in fiscal year 2019.
“Many of you are going to get phone calls because once this budget goes through … what’s going to happen is people are going to notice that they now are paying more for their health care,” he said.
Rep. Gary Viens, R-Newport, proposed an amendment that would have taken $300,000 out of the Office of the Defender General’s budget and put it into the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs’ budget.
This would allow the state to hire more deputy state’s attorneys, at a time when prosecutors are overwhelmed by their caseloads, he said.
Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, said the appropriations committee increased the defender general’s office’s budget for a reason. The Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs has increased staff by seven positions in the last four years, while the defender general’s office hasn’t received any.
“In an era of no new taxes and no new fees, we are figuring out how to bring balance to this system within the box that we’re in,” Hooper said.
The House voted down Viens’ proposal.
The bill also incorporates $28 million the state will receive as a result of a tobacco settlement. About half of the windfall, $14 million, will be used to fund efforts to fight addiction.
Of the other half of the funds, $10 million would be used to pay down teachers’ retirement obligations. Lawmakers say the additional payment on the unfunded pension liability could lead to about $30 million in savings on interest.
About $2 million would be placed into the state’s rainy day funds, in part as a safeguard against a future economic downturn.
The House proposal now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.