House debates budget bill

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(Host) Next year’s budget kept the Vermont House occupied all day Monday. An effort to boost spending for state aid to education was defeated by a vote of 79 to 64.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The House began its review of the budget plan in a rare Monday session. House Appropriations Chairman Richard Westman (R-Cambridge) told his colleagues that the job facing his committee this year was very difficult because of a continued weakness in the state economy:

(Westman) “This fiscal year is probably as bad as any that we have faced in quite a while. And it’s coming after two bad years, so within state government there is very little chance to find one-time monies to find any help to get out of this by doing easy things.”

(Kinzel) Westman says the proposed budget calls for a 1% increase in state spending next year, or roughly $11 million, on a total budget of just under $900 million. Westman says his committee had to develop key priorities to deal with growing pressures on the budget:

(Westman) “Health insurance across state government for our own state employees increased in the range of $3.5 million and we’ve seen caseloads in SRS and in the Human Services area of about $5 million. It doesn’t leave you very much room to move when you have only have $10.8 million worth of new revenue.”

(Kinzel) One of the committee’s most controversial recommendations involves the annual transfer of money from the General Fund to the Education Fund. The committee proposed transferring roughly $240 million- a figure that is $24 million less than is called for under state law.

House Democratic leader Gaye Symington said the committee, by under-funding the Education Fund, is unfairly using property taxes to pay for General Fund programs:

(Symington) “We accept that this is a tight budget year and that we have to make tight choices. But we made it clear early in this session as we discussed the budget adjustment act that using property taxes to balance the needs of the general fund is not an acceptable option.”

(Kinzel) Representative Tom Pelham (I-Calais), a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he hoped the Legislature would address Act 60 reform this year, but at this time, Pelham said it made sense to lower the General Fund transfer because there’s a surplus in the Education Fund:

(Pelham) “We hoped it to be done in an orderly way so that we can deal with both the revenue and the spending side at the same time, rather than to vote on an amendment that will definitely put a huge, huge hole in the bottom of the budget before you today.”

(Kinzel) The Appropriations Committee has also proposed delaying the opening of the Springfield prison as a way for the state to save money next year. The House, during the course of its budget debate, is expected to consider an amendment that calls for the jail to open on schedule this summer.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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