Conference Committees Meet to Settle Differences

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(Host) The House and Senate conference committee working on next year’s budget is considering some changes to the state’s Medicaid program, but the two chambers have yet to reach an agreement on this controversial issue. The conference committee is a familiar scene at this time of the year as the legislature winds down, as VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Sound of crowd inside the Statehouse.)

(Kinzel) At this stage in the Legislative session most of the important work at the Statehouse is being conducted by conference committees.

The committees are appointed when the House and the Senate cannot agree on the details of specific legislation. Each chamber selects three members to sit on the committee and their job is to negotiate a compromise. The compromises are then brought back to both the full House and Senate for their review. Currently there are at least 30 committees meeting on a regular basis and more are being created every day.

There’s no doubt that the committees on Act 60 and the Budget draw the biggest crowds. Dozens of lobbyists, advocates and reporters often crowd into small committee rooms to hear issues being debated and to hear new plans being proposed.

On Tuesday conferees for the Budget Committee discussed changes the state’s Medicaid program. The House last month implemented a series of cuts particularly in the area of pharmaceutical assistance. The Senate restored many of these cuts by raising the cigarette tax 31 cents higher than the House did. The Senate told the House on Tuesday that it’s now willing to consider some reductions including a freeze on new participants in the drug assistance programs. Bennington Senator Dick Sears:

(Sears) “And the RX prescription waiver is the same as in yours and we added language for the V-SCRIPT expanded enrollment freeze that would make clear that once Medicaid is solvent that we would reopen that program.”

(Kinzel) House Appropriations Chairman Richard Westman told the Senate members that it’s critical to make significant cuts because the state can not afford to maintain programs where costs are skyrocketing out of control:

(Westman) “I think that people that are outside of this table and outside of the place where they really have to make the decision for the long-term just don’t want to recognize that these programs are in trouble. And what we’re really fighting for is the long term health of these programs.”

(Kinzel) When the meeting ended and most of the observers had left the room, the conferees stayed at the table informally discussing some of the key issues that divide them. (Sound of discussion continues.)

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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