Report from Montpelier

by Rep. Joan Lenes

This past week has been filled with the responsibility of determining revenue and spending that is balanced and appropriate for Vermonters. This is a difficult and humbling task. There are no easy answers and no one is happy with all the results.

Speaker Shap Smith has said, “Balancing the budget is always a challenge. Our goal is to make investments in Vermonters and to create opportunity for growth across the board. This year, our budget is focused on maintaining the commitments to policy choices that we have made in the past, with the knowledge that we operate in a fiscally constrained environment. I am pleased that we were able to do this while both spending and raising less than the governor’s proposed budget.”

For the seventh year in a row our Appropriations Committee has had to address a gap between available resources and estimated expenditures. While there is evidence that the country is easing its way out of the financial difficulties we have been facing, revenues for Vermont are just returning to 2008 levels. The budget we passed in the House had tri-partisan support and I  voted to support it as well.

This budget spends less than what was proposed by the administration and leaves $9 million in reserves. I believe this is a responsible course of action. Federal sequestration will impact Vermonters in many arenas, from the military to education, and we will have to evaluate those new needs. Putting money aside makes sense both for addressing these potential needs and for keeping the state on a more financially sustainable path.

This budget also makes important investments. It addresses the Medicaid cost shift by increasing provider reimbursement by three percent. This benefits hospitals and doctors as well as our VNAs, designated agencies and others that deliver services for developmental, mental health, and choices for care populations. Language in the bill directs insurance companies to acknowledge this change in their rates, thus lowering health insurance rate increases from what they would otherwise be. This should directly impact Vermonters who purchase private insurance. We’ve eased the transition for Vermonters moving from Catamount and VHAP into the Exchange by providing premium and cost sharing subsidies in the amounts recommended by our Healthcare Committee. For the first time we are appropriating dollars for Low Income Heat Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in our base budget, reluctantly recognizing that what was for many, many years a federal responsibility must now be partially paid for by the state.

While we weren’t able to do all that the administration proposed in the area of childcare, the budget does change the fee scale in the subsidy program to help parents return to work and move to self-sufficiency. Finally, we make an investment in higher education that will all be used to provide scholarships to students thus lowering the debt burden on young Vermonters while giving them better employment options. This is a critical investment in our future.

We’ve taken steps to both build jobs and get people back to work. By investing in the work of the Clean Energy Development Fund, working lands and supporting employers hit by Irene we are building industries and jobs of which Vermont can be proud. What I have written about here is the House version of the budget. The Senate is developing their own budget and thoughtful compromising will occur later in the session between the two.

Please join Kate Webb and me at Brueggers Bagel on Tuesday mornings 7:30-8:30 am. You can reach me at jlenes197@gmail.com or at 999-9363. Messages may be left with the Sergeant at Arms 1-800-322-5616.

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