The Governor’s budget is now open to the public for view and comment. Thus begins the Legislature’s yearly task of evaluating the meaning and implication of the plan the Governor is putting forward, with each of us 180 legislators comparing this to the wishes of the constituents we represent.
The budget reflects the Governor’s values and priorities in how we address current conditions while shaping the future of our state. Over the coming weeks, the Legislature will carefully consider and test those ideas through a process of investigation and the taking of testimony from experts, advocates, and citizens.
Although the Governor, the House, and the Senate all hail from the same political party, there still exists an inherent tension between us as designed by our founding fathers. We are likely to find areas of agreement as well as disagreement and it can appear messy and divisive. In the end, it is my hope that the deliberative process, our rules of engagement, and the care, effort, and thought we invest give the end product strength and validity.
The legislative process begins in this manner: the four Republicans and seven Democrats who make up the House Appropriations Committee have each been assigned specific parts of the budget to evaluate. For example, the Governor recommends changes in human services, including tightening up the rules for Reach Up and using the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to fund expansion in early childhood education. What does this mean? Who is affected? Does it hurt or help working Vermonters at the edge of poverty? If this initiative is to move forward, are these the most appropriate funds? And the most subjective of questions, is this fair and to whom?
At the same time, the Ways and Means Committee begins to look at revenue to support our spending by reviewing the recently downgraded revenue forecast, property tax rate, generation of fees, miscellaneous taxes, and transportation funding. The Governor has proposed raising the property tax rate by five cents based on school budget projections, for example. Are there ways to reduce this impact? The Governor has also proposed to use a lottery type game called “break-open tickets” (a new concept for many of us) to fund Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Are the projections accurate? Who wins and who loses?
The budget process and documents can be followed on the Joint Fiscal Office website: www.leg.state.vt.us/JFO/default.aspx. At that site you will also see a press release regarding a joint public hearing you can attend at a Vermont Interactive Television site on Feb. 11.
Please join Joan Lenes and me for coffee and conversation most Tuesdays mornings at 7:30 am at Bruegger’s or by appointment: firstname.lastname@example.org or (802) 233-7798.