Budgets and 'Big Bills'
Last week the House passed the money bills on a vote of 94 to 40 and the miscellaneous tax bill on a voice vote. The $5.77 billion state budget for fiscal year 2017 now goes to the Senate.
The primary focus of this year's budget reflected the core priorities of policy committees, not individuals. The suggested priorities were then submitted as recommendations to Appropriations. Not every request was met but the process for assembling the budget was extremely inclusive. All representatives were contacted by the chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, Mitzi Johnson, and given opportunities throughout the past three months to review budget concerns, make recommendations about state programs, offer suggestions on allocation of resources and spending cuts in order to achieve a balanced budget. Legislators were also invited to weigh-in on what we felt about state investments outcomes. So ample opportunity was given to all to bring forth ideas.
I found this process to be extremely helpful. I was not surprised to see the vast majority of positive recommendations coming out of policy committees by votes of 11-0, 10-1, 9-1, 8-2 providing ample evidence of the ability of the House committees to draw consensus between all party lines.
Resources for FY17 were marked to stabilize and fund existing programs such as weatherization which was one of the programs that I advocated for last year because it saves a homeowner about $700 per year and lessens the carbon footprint. Weatherization and other cost saving initiatives took a huge hit in the 2016 budget. However, weatherization, as well as state colleges, childcare market rates, and designated agencies were given modest increases. Wisely, the legislature did not start new initiatives but chose instead to address areas such as those just mentioned that have been nearly level funded for 9 years. The FY17 budget also strongly supported a critical Child Protection Package. We worked diligently last year in my committee, House Human Services, on child protection. This coming budget year many children and families at risk who are involved in DCF and our judicial system will be better supported.
The FY17 budget also took major steps towards fulfilling the intent laid out in last year's budget bill by reducing reliance on one time funds for base needs and using no one-time funds for on-going needs, thus curbing some spending. We voted to budget less than 100 percent of forecasted revenue and put strategies in place to build reserves. (The Appropriations Committee decided not to return just over $1.3 million to the Ways and Means Committee to reduce their tax proposal).
One observation that I made to the Chair of the Appropriations Committee last fall was that the House explores moving to a longer-range budgeting cycle. I believe vision and good planning are essential to Vermont's future. One of our greatest challenges is to ensure that more Vermonters do not fall into poverty. There is no guarantee that doesn't happen but there is a much greater chance if we turn the dial and place more emphasis on using our resources for prevention and preventative programs. My point is underscored precisely by the fact that this year caseload changes from existing policies inflated our deficit and netted just under $40 million of General Fund increases in a variety of programs: Medicaid, DCF foster and adoptive care, developmental services, Reach Up, Choices for Care, the public safety "Act 248" population. Multi-million dollar expenditures will escalate each year if we refuse to make a move away from crisis management. A large portion of Vermont's failing and/or most vulnerable population needs help. But the next generation needs assistance now in order not to fall into poverty by providing strategies and preventive opportunities. Bernie Sanders addresses this concern in a manner that has not been approached since the end of the Johnson Administration because he understands the importance of guarding those in need and guiding a generation and offering hopeful solutions for the next.
What happened in the budgetary process this year provided evidence of making a good fiscally responsible effort at turning the wheel away from poverty by recovering a vision for the future that is progressive. Legislators this year sought to commit to running our government on a more RBS (Results Based Accountability) model that measures performance in every single department's budget. (We have also codified requirements for performance measures in AHS grants.)
After the budget was presented there was some squawking and chirping going on. That's not bad. I do it myself over issues I feel strongly about. However, even when people voted against the budget they did it for partisan reasons which turns out to be less compelling because of the positive committee work. This is important to remember. We do work together in Vermont. Together we have raised the minimum wage, passed universal sick leave, enhanced Vermonters' access to the ballot box and guided Vermont through the great recession to a place where our fiscal house is sound. We have a lot to be proud of. We couldn't have done it without strong, unified majorities defending our environment and our economy so that hard-working Vermonters, who sometimes feel like the system is rigged against them, can see they have allies here in Montpelier.
There are very good reasons why Moody's gave Vermont a Aaa Bond Rating. As Moody's explained: The Aaa rating reflects Vermont's strong financial management, which features conservative fiscal policies, consistent governance, and a proven commitment to maintaining healthy reserve balances. The state's debt is modest, and its economy, while small for a state, is vibrant. The rating also recognizes Vermont's sizeable unfunded pension liabilities, which we consider the state's biggest long-term challenge. OUTLOOK The stable outlook reflects the state's proven ability to continue operating on a balanced basis and maintaining a solid rainy day fund balance regardless of economic cycles. The outlook also anticipates slow progress toward achieving stronger funding of the state's pension liabilities.
There is a difference between wanting to lead and actually being equipped to lead. People can shout all they want. Individuals can grandstand if they like. The truth remains that good leadership listens, provides opportunities for all become involved, embraces every and all ideas and then decides and chooses the path that serves the greater good—given fiscal restrictions. The legislative committee process and particularly the management of Mitzi Johnson and the other chairs of our House Committees provided this leading.
This FY17's budget is by no means perfect but that is because no elected representatives are perfect. Some day, hopefully in the near future, we will reform our tax structure. Meanwhile, despite constraints, we will seek to make progress for the betterment of all Vermonters. The FY 17 budget reflects good values, the work of many policy committees representing all parties, our collective top priorities as voted out of committees, and our willingness to collaborate to get things done—passing a balanced budget. I feel honored to be part of that process.
Steve Berry is a representative to the state legislature whose district includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.
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