Legislature Set To Open, With Budget At Top Of Agenda

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(Host) The 2010 Legislative session is set to open Tuesday and budget is at the top of the agenda. Concerns over money are expected to influence the debate on everything from health care to education.

The Governor and legislative leaders agree on the scope of the problem. But as VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, they have different solutions.

(Kinzel) In the course of the next few weeks, you’re going to hear the phrase "a projected $150 million budget gap," over and over again as political leaders describe the financial difficulties facing the state in the next fiscal year.

Where does the number come from?  It’s a combination of reduced federal stimulus money, greater pressures on human service programs including health care, and projected shortfalls in the state employees and teachers retirement funds.

This is happening at a time when state revenues have declined significantly over the past two years and the $150 million gap represents about 8% of the current state budget.

Governor Jim Douglas says the time has come for the state to totally re-examine its role in providing services to Vermonters:                     

(Douglas) "We aren’t going to be able to achieve $150 million in savings by efficiency alone and that’s why we’re going to have to make some real tough choices. We’re going to have to ask some basic questions about what government does, what’s important, what’s not as important and decide whether we need to continue to do everything state government does."

(Kinzel) Douglas likes to point out that spending on education is one of the state’s largest expenditures.  That’s why he says he’ll once again propose a plan to restrict local school spending:

(Douglas) "We need to get property taxes under control. We need to recognize that we can’t sustain the level of spending out of our education fund."

(Kinzel) House Speaker Shap Smith says the budget gap is one of the Legislature’s greatest challenges this year and he doubts that the problem can be solved by simply making across the board cuts in most programs:

(Smith) "I think that Vermonters have to expect that everything’s going to be on the table and I do think that there is the possibility that we will have to get rid of particular programs in their entirety. I think that’s an alternative we have to be willing to look at."

(Kinzel) And Smith says he wants to solve the budget problem without raising taxes:

(Smith) "I think that we need to be looking at the expense side at this point in time…we need to look at the budget, we need to understand what we can do with regard to reducing the amount that we’re spending, and that is where the focus of the House is going to be."

(Kinzel) Lawmakers are expected to receive a report in the next week that will outline possible ways to restructure state government without eliminating essential services.

It’s likely that the report will become part of the larger discussion about the appropriate role of state government in the future.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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