Former governor criticizes Douglas’ budget cuts

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(Host) The proposal by Governor Jim Douglas to slash money for housing and land conservation has drawn a prominent critic … former Governor Howard Dean.

Dean says budget cuts pushed by the Douglas administration would cripple a program that Dean says protects Vermont’s way of life.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Douglas wants to cut about $13 million from the $15 million budget for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. The board makes investments in affordable housing and land protection.

Farmers and affordable housing advocates worry that the cuts would gut the program. Alburg farmer Heather Darby told a legislative committee this week that money from the board helped preserve her family’s seventh generation farm.

(Darby) "From one from generation to the next, the farm was passed from father to son. In 2003, that farm was passed from father to daughter, a first. And that first was made possible by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the support from the Vermont Land Trust."

(Dillon) Darby said she was dismayed by the governor’s proposed cuts.

(Darby) "And I have to say that for a very small percentage of the state budget — .2 percent of the entire budget, not to mention that it brings in an additional $5 million to the state for land conservation – it seems absolutely ludicrous to me."

(Dillon) Now former Governor Howard Dean has taken up the cause as well. Dean expanded the program in the 1990s. He said keeping land open and housing affordable is part of what he calls the state’s "100-year plan."

(Dean) "Long term affordable housing so ordinary Vermonters can buy houses, and putting land in conversation so we can have farming 100 years from now – those things should not be sacrificed for a short-term budget crisis."

(Dillon) Governor Douglas says he supports affordable housing and land conservation. But he says lawmakers and the administration face a tough choice between making deeper cuts to human service programs or supporting the Housing and Conservation Board.

(Douglas) "The question that we have to resolve in this deepest crisis since the Second World War is what our priorities are when Vermonters are struggling, when we have an increased demand for basic human services and when our revenues are shrinking dramatically."

(Dillon) Douglas said he wasn’t bothered by his predecessor’s criticism.

(Douglas) "But I think it’s reasonable to take a step back on some land conservation initiatives at a time when we‘ve got other priorities."

(Dillon) But Dean says it’s unfair to pit housing and land protection against human services programs.

(Dean) "It’s really hard to make an argument to take money away from medical programs for poor kids and put money into housing and conservation. But that’s why you should never make the trade in the first place….  Some money has to be put away for the future every year. And you can vary the amount of money, but you can’t essentially eliminate it, which is what these proposals are."

(Dillon) The program takes a hit under the legislature’s budget as well. The spending plan cuts about $8 million from housing and conservation, although lawmakers would backfill some of the money with one-time federal funds.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier

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