Agencies React to Dean’s Budget Address

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When the governor steps before the Vermont legislature to announce a budget filled with reductions, you can expect a big reaction. Governor Howard Dean’s budget address this week launched one of the most contentious budget debates in a decade.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Sound of a crowd at the Statehouse)

The busiest spot in the Statehouse on Tuesday was just outside the House chamber.

Here, Governor Dean’s staff stacked up copies of his proposed 2003 budget. Moments after Dean finished his speech, lobbyists and other advocates lined up five deep to grab the document and see how their programs were affected.

Steve Jeffrey is director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. He says Dean’s proposed budget actually passes on hefty tax increases to local communities.

Dean wants to cut $16 million out of the state program that repairs local roads and bridges. Jeffrey says towns will have to raise taxes to cover the shortfall:

(Jeffrey) “A penny on the property tax raises about $4 million, so it looks like about a 4 cent property tax increase just to stay where we are as far as trying to maintain our roads.”

Jeffrey says the law now requires the state to increase the education fund by 3.5%. Dean has proposed no increase. And Jeffrey says that will put the burden back on local property taxpayers:

(Jeffrey) “There’s no question that this is going to end up right on people’s property taxes, and to say that this budget is balanced without a tax increase is not a truthful statement.”

The governor has also proposed major cuts in state-funded health programs. Dean wants to require a 50% co-payment for prescription drugs for those on Medicaid and the state health access plan.

The cut in drug benefits will hit the elderly especially hard. Harriet Goodwin is executive director of the Community of Vermont Elders. She says she gets calls from people who are forced to limit the number of medications they take because of the high cost:

(Goodwin) “But 50% of the cost of some of these drugs is prohibitive for many seniors today¿. And it seems as though this disproportionately falls on seniors, low-income seniors and disabled people.

But not everyone was dissatisfied with the governor’s proposed budget. Environmentalists were pleased that the governor proposed a $2.8 million increase for the Agency of Natural Resources.

And a University of Vermont administrator says he’s gratified that Dean wants a 2% increase for higher education. Dean also wants to restore cuts made earlier this year. Larry Forcier runs the university’s extension program:

(Forcier) “I really appreciated his kind comments about higher education as well as a down payment on the kids’ future¿. How can you not, given the total budget, feel pretty good about his commitment to higher ed this year?”

The governor’s budget address starts a long process of horse-trading between legislators and the administration. The advocates and interest groups say they’ll be back in the Statehouse to argue that their programs should be spared the budget ax.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in the Statehouse.

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