The state held the second of two public forums Monday to give Vermonters a chance to weigh in on budget priorities.
The forums, mandated by the legislature last session, require the Governor to hold public meetings on budget priorities before the budget is written and presented to the legislature.
Participants at Monday’s final forum took part at Vermont Interactive Television sites around the state.
The invitation to Vermonters to weigh in on how the state should allocate money came with caveats.
Department Of Finance and Management Commissioner Jim Reardon says there’s less flexibility in budget decisions than most people think.
There are a number of reasons for that, Reardon says, including the fact that 35 percent of the state’s budget comes from federal money.
"We are a state that is on a per capita basis very heavily reliant on federal funds," he explained. "We actually get back from the federal government than as a state we pay into the federal government."
About two dozen people offered their comments, including advocates, social service workers, labor representatives, parents of children with disabilities and one business owner.
Many encouraged the administration to do more to protect the most vulnerable Vermonters and address issues like public transportation in rural areas and state support for higher education.
Kathleen Kolb of Lincoln says she’s concerned about increasing strain on the social services she depends on to care for her adult son with autism.
"I am grateful for what he gets," said Kolb. "I think its really important that the agencies that provide this level of care are not stressed any further. I’ve been watching over the past few years, the level of stress increase for jobs that are not that well rewarded in the first place."
Reardon and Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding listened, responded and sometimes asked their own questions.
Traven Leyshon of the AFl-CIO challenged the administration’s contention that increased taxes would put Vermont at a competitive disadvantage. Leyshon called for higher taxes on the wealthy, which prompted an exchange with Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding who said Vermont has one of the most progressive income tax systems in the country.
When Leyshon pointed out that effective tax rates for wealthy Vermonters has declined, Spaulding observed, "That’s because of changes in the federal income tax." He agreed that Vermont could increase taxes on wealthy individuals if the Governor and legislature decided to.
Spaulding says there are constant pressures on the state’s ability to maintain, much less expand services.
He says the budget that the Governor will present to the legislature early next year has not yet been written.