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This past week Gov. Shumlin delivered his first budget recommendation. Since he has summarily dismissed the idea of looking at increasing taxes (even as the wealthiest 5% of Vermonters will enjoy $190 million savings thanks to the extension of the Bush tax cuts), cuts were inevitable.
Consistent with his predecessor, Shumlin proposed that we cut most from the Agency of Human Services – $110 million this year. Most of this money reflects the lack of federal dollars that bailed Vermont out last year. But it signals a troubling set of priorities for a new administration where many have such high hopes.
Particularly troubling is a proposed 5% cut to mental health services. After three years of cuts, Shumlin is asking community mental health agencies to squeeze their budgets even further. This seems as sensible as looking to the homeless to solve our education funding challenges. Also, one of Shumlin’s laudable priorities is keeping people out of jail by increasing reliance on diversion. Many who land in corrections suffer from mental health problems, so cutting programs is at odds with the goal of reducing the corrections population.
A lot was made of the changes to Catamount Health Care. From a consumer’s point of view, the difference is a big increase in the annual deductible, up from $500 to $1,200. Obviously that is not a good option for low-income Vermonters, but Catamount simply isn’t financially sustainable. Shumlin’s goal here is to create a decent bridge until the full health care reform effort can be rolled out. Some also wonder if it’s his way of illustrating the need for comprehensive reform. Hospitals and doctors are up in arms about the proposed changes to Catamount because their reimbursement rates will drop sharply.
On the plus side he is proposing to fully fund the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund. He also proposes to move early education funding from the ed fund to the general fund. This would give the state greater flexibility to fund early education without relying solely on the property tax.
And, in a great relief to Progressives, Shumlin admits that Challenges for Changes didn’t work and we will no longer count on savings that haven’t yet been identified. Having fewer games surface in the budget debate can only help. Even as he suggested we cut human services, he had the decency to avoid saying services won’t be impacted. In fact he said exactly the opposite. At least we seem to be entering an era where the discussion happens in a more transparent and straightforward way.