House to vote on budget Friday

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(Host) Thursday night, the Vermont House gave preliminary approval to next year’s state budget. The major battle over the bill was an unsuccessful effort by the Republicans to include Governor Jim Douglas’ Medicaid reform plan in the legislation.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The proposed budget calls for roughly a three percent increase in spending next year. House Appropriations Chairwoman Martha Heath told her colleagues that her committee didn’t want to transfer financial burdens from the state to the local level to balance the budget.

Heath says the proposal increases funding for higher education and workforce training programs, it provides additional funds to help clean up Lake Champlain and it allocates additional funds for the state’s transportation paving programs:

(Heath) “All of these choices reflect our commitment to live up to our promises to our communities and not to make choices that would put greater pressures on property taxes. We were able in the budget to make investments in Vermont’s future our economy and our workforce.”

(Kinzel) Heath says her committee deliberately decided not to include spending on the state’s Medicaid program in the overall budget. The program faces a projected $80 million deficit next year.

The Douglas administration is seeking a waiver from the federal government to give the state much more flexibility in using federal Medicaid funds. The administration hopes to receive approval for the waiver in the next few weeks. Heath says it makes no sense to pass a Medicaid budget until the waiver issue is settled.

House Republicans strongly disagreed with this approach. They tried to amend the budget to include the governor’s Medicaid plan. It’s a proposal that increases premiums for participants of the VHAP and Dr. Dynasaur programs, cuts payments to hospitals and doctors and requires higher payments for the state’s pharmaceutical assistance programs.

Shelburne Representaive Joyce Errecart argued it’s critical for lawmakers to address the Medicaid issue now:

(Errecart) “If we defeat this amendment and if we send this bill forward without a Medicaid deficit reduction then I fully expect that your next opportunity to vote on the Medicaid budget will have to include a tax increase.”

(Kinzel) But Burlington Representaive Mark Larson argued that it’s a mistake to tackle the Medicaid problem now because there are still too many variables to consider:

(Larson) “We need more information and I think we have a responsible process in place. Again, I would emphasis 24 percent of Vermonters rely on Medicaid – 150,000 people. For us to make a rash decision without all the information does not benefit Vermont.”

(Kinzel) After more than an hour of debate, the House voted to reject the Republican amendment by a vote of 99 to 43. The budget is scheduled to come up for final approval in the House on Friday.

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

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