Backwards budgeting

Gov. Phil Scott sets out some priorities in the fiscal 2019 State Budget Overview released Thursday. He doesn’t spell out goals per se; they’re more like areas of concern. Still, the budget process just seems backwards, especially when the stated goal of the budget, at least according to statute, is to address the needs of Vermonters.

The Budget Overview says the administration will measure progress by: “Growing the Economy,” “Making Vermont More Affordable,” and “Protecting the Vulnerable.” These are laudable goals, but there are no defined targets. For example, one metric is “[p]ercent of population living below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).” But there’s no indication of what the percentage ought to be or what might be done to reduce poverty. “Wage growth—by region” is another metric, but again, no goal, no 5-year target.

Where the administration has set a target—at least a preliminary one—is spending. The administration kicked off the budget process nearly six weeks ago by asking agencies and departments to plan for level funding, meaning they should expect the same amount of money for fiscal 2019 as they had this year. And within that level funding, agencies are supposed to absorb payroll increases that have been agreed to already. In many parts of state government, level funding will mean a reduction in public services.

That’s what seems backwards. If increasing the labor force; reducing the cost of health care, housing and taxes; and lifting Vermonters out of poverty are the measures of progress, shouldn’t the budget start with an assessment of what needs to be done to achieve those goals and how much it would cost?

That’s not to say that all of these things can be or ought to be done at once. But we need to start putting stakes in the ground for where we want to be in five or 10 years, and then the budget can become the plan for moving toward a vision for the future.

It’s difficult for Vermonters to judge the adequacy of the state budget. The state spends more than $5 billion each year, but without knowing what it would take to achieve the progress the governor is talking about, we can’t tell whether that’s enough or how far we’ll fall behind if Montpelier decides to level fund the budget.


Posted by Jack Hoffman on November 2, 2017 at 4:05 pm

One Response to “Backwards budgeting”

  1. Thank You Paul, Jack & Stephanie for making it clear (at least to me), that the governor’s statements have no basis in reality. If we are to take him seriously, he needs to establish criteria & how to achieve it, for the goals he states.
    Jane Osgatharp, President, VT Alliance for Retired Americans