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How to look at looming budget cuts

By Paul Cillo, Rutland Herald, October 5, 2014

A month after announcing a 2 percent cut to the current year’s budget, the Shumlin administration is signaling its intention to make additional cuts of as much as 5 percent and possibly more next year (fiscal 2016). For an already anemic state government that is suffering from staffing shortages and struggling to meet its obligations to residents, the administration’s directive cannot be good for Vermonters or for state employee morale.

The Department of Finance and Management sent fiscal 2016 budget instructions to state agency and department managers in mid-September. Managers have about a month to respond, explaining how they will deal with upward “pressures” — such as cost of living increases for state employees, caseload increases, contractual increases, loss of federal funding, inflation, and other new demands — and still meet their budget targets.

The administration laid out two scenarios for fiscal 2016:
— Level funding — the same amount appropriated for this fiscal year after the cuts adopted in August.
— Five percent cut from fiscal 2015 levels?again after the August cuts.

With both scenarios, the administration is requiring that agencies and departments absorb state employee salary increases put in place in fiscal 2015. So “level funding” really will mean less money for services than this year. And because department managers are being warned there will be no state funds to make up for any cut in federal funds, except to meet “a critical state policy goal,” the second scenario is likely to produce cuts deeper than 5 percent.

While Vermonters expect a balanced budget, the fact that a budget is balanced does not make it adequate. The Legislature acknowledged as much two years ago when it adopted a new statute defining the purpose of the state budget. 

It says: “The state budget should be designed to address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity.” Among the needs cited in the law are “health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security, and a healthy environment.” In short, the whole point of having state government and a state budget is to improve the lives of the people who live here. 

The new statute also calls for transparency, public participation, and “continuous evaluation of the raising and spending of public funds by systems of outcome measurement. …” In other words, when we’re assessing the state budget, we need to look beyond whether expenditures match revenues. We also have to ask whether the administration and the Legislature are providing the staffing and resources needed to deliver the services Vermonters expect and deserve.

The child abuse cases that rocked the Department for Children and Families this year serve as a painful reminder of what happens when state officials say they can do more with less. The problems at DCF also should be a guide to how Vermonters should assess the proposed budget cuts.

— First, Vermonters should insist that the responses to the governor’s two budget scenarios be made public by posting them on the new data.vermont.gov website.

— Second, they should look for clear explanations of what cuts will mean to the delivery of specific services. For example, if a cut is expected to produce higher caseloads for state employees, ask what the consequences will be. More child abuse? More homelessness? More people going hungry because food stamp claims won’t be processed on time?

— Third, ask to see what the alternatives might be. If more staffing and resources would protect more children from child abuse, what would it cost and how might we raise the money?

The law passed two years ago says the budget is supposed to address Vermonters’ needs in a way that advances human dignity and equity. That’s the standard we should be using to judge whether the budget is adequate, not simply whether the numbers come out even.



Paul A. Cillo is president of the Public Assets Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit group in Montpelier (www.publicassets.org).

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