Public Assets Institute > Press > Op-Eds > State budget cuts will hurt Vermonters

State budget cuts will hurt Vermonters

Aug. 17, 2008, Times Argus
by Paul Cillo

On Tuesday, Governor James Douglas will unveil his plan to a legislative committee for $32 million in emergency cuts to the state budget.

Legislative leaders seem willing to go along. No hearings are scheduled, no citizens will be heard.

A few words are being spoken about sharing the pain. But the way they’re going about it, you’d think the pain was not going to be felt by real people: Vermonters.

What does it mean to cut the budget? Yes, it means the state will spend less. In fact, with these cuts, the 2009 budget would be smaller than 2008’s. But no one is talking about the price all of us will pay.

Vermont is a great place to live and work because of the public structures we’ve created over the years — physical structures like highways and sewage treatment plants; organizational structures like the courts and a democratic elections process; and social and community structures like health care, public housing, police, public schools, and libraries. The state budget reflects the values of Vermonters, who have long supported these public structures, which make civilized society and economic prosperity possible.

So there’s a dilemma when the state’s revenue system doesn’t produce enough money to maintain it’s public structures. If the state cuts services to balance the budget—especially in the crude, across-the-board way the governor is talking about—it undermines the quality of life and prosperity of our state.

That’s why state law requires that a governor who wants to make emergency cuts of more than one percent to a budget already approved by the legislature must prepare a plan as to how he’s going to do it. The governor says he has a plan: He’s proposing to protect about half of the General Fund budget and take the cuts from the other half. And in case you think these cuts are temporary, think again.The governor is looking to cut the base budget so the cuts will be permanent.

The law won’t let the governor cut appropriations to the judicial or legislative branches of state government—that protects the separation of powers. So, other than those and a few other protected functions, the administration is asking all of Vermont’s agencies to slice five percent off the top of their spending.

Vermont law also requires that the governor’s plan “indicate the effect of the expenditure reduction on the primary purposes of the program for which the appropriation was made.” In other words, the administration has to tell us how and where the ax will hurt.

The Joint Fiscal Committee has 21 days to respond to the governor’s plan. If the committee rejects the plan, the governor cannot implement it.

The committee should use the 21 days provided in statute. It should hear from Vermonters about what $32 million in cuts will mean to people who depend on state-funded health care or housing, to towns whose roads are in disrepair, to everyone who depends on the state to ensure that the food they eat and water they drink is clean and safe.

Budgets are passed after a lengthy public process during the legislative session. If the legislature were in session now, these deliberations and decisions would also be done with public input. The Joint Fiscal Committee should ensure that this important process is just as open and that the public has the same opportunity to weigh in on how they want their state budget balanced. If the committee cannot provide that forum now, they should reject the governor’s plan and wait until January when the legislature is back in session.

The state also has other options. One-quarter of the $32 million shortfall is in the Transportation Fund. A two-cent increase in motor fuel taxes could take care of that problem. It’s hard to believe that Vermonters would rather see their roads continue to deteriorate for lack of maintenance than pay two cents more per gallon, especially since the price at the pump fluctuated ten times that amount within the past month.

There’s also that rainy day fund: $87 million set aside for situations just like the one we’re in—a cyclical downturn, where revenues are not adequate to fund the state’s critical functions. A $32 million gap with $87 million sitting in the bank starts to look like a problem with an obvious solution.

The governor and legislative leaders refuse to consider these options. But they should get out from under the Golden Dome and look at the sky. It’s raining. Vermonters need an umbrella, and it’s the state’s responsibility to help provide it.

Comments are closed.