House gives initial approval to state budget

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(Host) On Monday, by a vote of 81 to 59, the Vermont House gave its preliminary approval to the state budget for next year.House Appropriations Chairman Richard Westman says the budget plan meets the state’s immediate needs, while it limits the growth of overall state spending. However, Democratic leaders have a very different view of this bill.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel)Westman told his colleagues that Vermont is in better financial shape than many other states. He noted that more than 30 states are projecting deficits this year. In contrast, Westman says Vermont’s budget is balanced and the state has spending reserves that total seven percent of the total budget.

Westman says the budget allocates additional money for a number of programs that his committee feels were shortchanged in late 1990s, including higher education and mental health services:

(Westman)”We believe there are tremendous needs. We believe that those needs come from three or four years of tight budgets but we believe the budget we present before you is fair to everyone involved.”

(Kinzel) Mental health advocates argue that the committee’s two percent increase for their budget isn’t sufficient. They predict that services to over 2,000 people will have to be discontinued, and that at least 200 jobs will have to be cut at local mental health agencies if funding levels are not increased.

Westman also offered a challenge to House members who are thinking about making changes to his committee’s budget plan:

(Westman) “We believe it’s incumbent on the people in this body if you are going to raise spending items or you want tax cuts go in this budget and find the money.”

(Kinzel)Burlington Representative John Tracy said the budget plan was irresponsible because it fails to address what he says will be major funding problems in about a year including a $40 million deficit in the state’s Medicaid programs:

(Tracy)”If we start dealing with it now it’ll be less painful and we’re willing to reach out and willing to participate in the plan because procrastination is not a plan. The best thing we can do is vote down this budget. Reach out with the leadership of the Appropriations Committee, the administration and the other chamber and try to build a budget that won’t have us leaving her with a hole and having to deal with the same thing if not worse next year.”

(Kinzel) Westman says the budget proposal does contain some special studies to look at future funding problems and he says criticisms from the Democrats are simply an effort to boost spending this year – a move that Westman says would require a tax increase. The budget will come up for final approval in the House on Tuesday.

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

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