Fixing the budget mess
Vermont's budget process is broken. Year after year spending rises more than the economy expands, the Governor and Legislature search around at the last moments for tens of millions of dollars in higher taxes and fees, with hard-working Vermonters pay the price.
Over the past five years Governor Shumlin has overseen an increase in taxes, fees, and surcharges of more than $640 million, a staggering 23 percent increase for a state of Vermont's size and declining population. For the typical family of four, this means that nearly $4,000 a year more are taken from family budgets. This money could have gone to college tuition, savings, or just paying the bills but instead is taken and put into state coffers.
This year there is another budget gap which we are told will require up to $48 million in new taxes and fees. Enough is enough.
The Legislature should vote against any increase in taxes, fees or surcharges this year and send the budget mess back to Governor Shumlin so he can take responsibility and fix it. The Governor's continued calls for spending increases at over 5 percent in an economy that is growing at less than 3 percent is not wise. Nor is it sustainable. The $30 million in new taxes last year and the $48 million in new taxes this year puts too high a burden on hard working Vermonters.
Two percent overall budget growth is plenty so long as we spend that money wisely. This does not mean we simply give every program 2 percent more money than it had the year before. That would not be smart. Rather, we need to set priorities and invest in those programs that succeed at providing a vital public service. And we must also reform those programs that are not delivering good value.
As Governor, I would hold total budget spending increases to 2 percent a year for the next three years. There are several other major steps we can take to use taxpayers' dollars wisely, end the practice of adding to tax burdens, and make sure we efficiently provide vital services.
For starters we should require agency and department heads to collaborate across state government to deliver 1.5 percent in additional efficiencies. Rigorous measurement, evaluation and adjustment will mean improved service and lower costs.
We need to conduct an audit of Medicaid, which came in at nearly $70 million over budget as the result of an unexpectedly large surge in enrollment.
We need to terminate Vermont Health Connect and transition Vermont to the federal health exchange. Despite having spent nearly $300 million on VHC, there is no evidence that the system is any closer to working as intended. Furthermore, Vermont's health care exchange has the highest cost per capita of any exchange in the nation.
We need to repeal Act 46 and create a path to lower property taxes by saving the $164 million identified in the recent Picus Report.
As Governor, I will create a culture of accountability. We will measure results, and understand which programs serve their clients well and which ones do not. We will carefully manage contracts and audit results so that we know taxpayer money is not being wasted. And we will set priorities. Vital services that require additional spending because they meet a growing need and/or have been underfunded in the past, like higher education, will be funded sufficiently.
During the past four and a half months, I have traveled throughout Vermont and met with more than 3,000 Vermonters. They are more concerned than ever about the future as Vermont becomes a less affordable place to live and one more burdened with taxes.
Just as Vermonters make prudent and difficult decisions to adjust their budgets to live within their means, so too should our state government. With common sense and fair measures like the ones above, we will have a state government that truly functions at the level that Vermonters wish to see, and deserve to have.
Bruce Lisman of Shelburne is a Republican candidate for Governor of Vermont.
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