Budget bill stalled at political impasse

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(Host) A political spat has bogged down budget negotiators in the Legislature. The House and Senate failed to agree Wednesday on the budget bill, and House Speaker Walter Freed told representatives not to come to work on Thursday. The impasse means the 2003 Legislature won’t adjourn until late this week.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The 2004 budget is the must pass bill of the legislative session. And the House and Senate are now deadlocked over a small appropriation for a legislative group that works to bring down the cost of prescription drugs.

The impasse has political overtones. The Democratically controlled Senate supports the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices. The group was supported by a former senator, Democrat Peter Shumlin. Another Democrat, former Senator Cheryl Rivers, works for the association. The deadlock was first over $50,000 that the Senate wanted to pay Rivers next year.

House Speaker Freed (R-Dorset) says he wants other states to contribute to the organization:

(Freed) “We don’t have an agreement on the budget at this point. We don’t have a committee of conference report that the House can vote. So it makes no sense for the House to come back here and stand around for $25,000 of taxpayer money.”

(Dillon) Freed says he would agree to pay $50,000 for the organization in next year’s budget, and $15,000 the year after.

(Freed) “We’ve offered a 50 and 15, but there’s other strings attached.”

(Dillon) What Freed calls the “other strings attached” is language the Senate wants that would give the state attorney general more power to look at the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and Vermont health care providers.

But Democrats say Freed has carried his personal politics over into the budget negotiations. They say the association has saved the states $16 million. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille County) chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee:

(Bartlett) “This is strictly the speaker not liking Cheryl Rivers and Peter Shumlin. It doesn’t have anything to do with the value of the program, and that’s too bad.”

(Dillon) But Freed says he wants proof that the program works, and he wants other states to contribute as much as Vermont.

(Freed) “That’s Cheryl River saying that NILA is saving Vermont millions. I’m sure Maine isn’t saying that Cheryl Rivers is saving them millions. If they did, why didn’t they pay a little bit into helping pay for this organization every year. Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania – why aren’t they paying?”

(Dillon) Democrats counter that the pharmaceutical industry wants to kill the association, and that Republicans are helping them do that. The House and Senate negotiators will meet again Thursday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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