Legislature Disagrees on Budget and Reapportionment

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(Host) The Legislature made some progress toward adjournment Friday but disagreements remain over a number of key issues. Lawmakers will have to meet again today to wrap up this year’s session.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Legislative leaders had hoped to adjourn during the month of May but late Friday afternoon it became clear that this goal could not be met.

Budget negotiators reported on Friday that they’ve made significant progress on next year’s budget plan. Disagreements over the Medicaid portion of the budget were resolved when House and Senate leaders agreed on a proposal to increase the cigarette tax by 49 cents this year and another 25 cents next year. These revenues allowed budget negotiators to make a series of compromise cuts in the state’s drug assistance programs.

But there’s a cloud hanging over the budget talks. Next week the revenue report for May will be released and Governor Howard Dean has indicated that the state could face a $20 to $30 million shortfall. This means the revenue projections for next year are too high.

The proposed budget plan gives the governor expanded authority to make recisions this summer but some Senate Democrats, like Chittenden Senator Jim Leddy questioned whether or not the Legislature should consider those cuts in a special session later this summer:

(Leddy) “We’ve got a disconnect between a budget we’re reviewing today and the certainty that that is going to change very, very soon…. And we should have gone home if we’re going to have a budget that going to be opened up again the first week of July. We shouldn’t even be here if that’s where we are.”

(Kinzel) Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Bartlett strongly opposed the special session approach:

(Bartlett) “If you want to call everybody back in, I want you to look at the chaos that you’re creating. And to think that you’re going to do this in one day, you’re going to have people say – raise the income tax. I just want to know what chance on God’s green earth you think we have of this House increasing the income tax.”

(Kinzel) It’s likely that the final budget plan will include the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee in any decision to cut the budget this summer.

Reapportionment is still an issue in play at the Statehouse. House Republicans have made several changes to their own map, changes that have angered the Democrats in that chamber, and they’ve made a number of changes to the Senate map. These changes are being opposed by Senate Democrats. On Friday afternoon, during the House debate on this issue, there was an unsuccessful effort to cut the six-member Chittenden County senate district in half. Burlington Representative Kurt Wright said the current district is the largest in the country and deprives voters of effective representation:

(Wright) “It’s more and more costly to run a campaign – a new record is set each year in Chittenden County. It is unmanageable. Eighteen candidates in the last race for six open seats – that makes debate and dialogue extremely difficult, if not impossible, with voters.”

(Kinzel) But Richmond Representative Patricia Doyle said it was a mistake to divide Chittenden county in half:

(Doyle) “We do our planning as a region. The Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, the GBIC, the Industrial Corporation is for all of those different towns in Chittenden County. So it’s really very important to think of this as a region.”

(Kinzel) The measure was defeated by a vote of 84 to 56. A House Senate conference committee will now look at the reapportionment plans for both chambers and it’s likely that the final compromise, if there is one, will include concessions on both maps.

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

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