New Legislature faces tight budget, high health care costs

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(Host) When lawmakers return to Montpelier on Wednesday for the new session, they’ll face some tough financial issues that will affect the overall state budget and the cost of health care.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel has this preview of the key issues of the new session.

(Kinzel) The political landscape of the General Assembly has changed dramatically since last spring. The Democrats have regained control of the House after four years as the minority party and they’ve expanded their sizeable majority in the Senate. Democratic leaders and Republican Governor Jim Douglas are vowing to work together to deal with the major issues facing the state but it’s not clear how long this spirit of cooperation will last under the golden dome.

It’s likely that fiscal issues will dominate much of the debate at the Statehouse this winter. The governor is planing a tight budget for the new fiscal year. Douglas says his top priorities will be higher education, public safety, economic development and funding for Lake Champlain. Many other departments are facing a level-funded budget or a small reduction.

The budget is also being constrained because the state is facing a roughly $60 million to $70 million deficit in the Medicaid program:

(Douglas) “We’re on track to have some growth on a sustainable basis of three or four percent in our revenues. So the problem is the appetite for spending in many state programs that needs to be restrained. Medicaid is one of the most prominent ones, other programs – particularly in the Human Services field – are going to present some pressures as well.”

(Kinzel) The ever growing Medicaid deficit is the result of several factors: a cut in federal funds, increased utilization of health care services and higher medical expenses and escalating prescription drug costs. Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Welch doesn’t want to cut Medicaid benefits and he wants to expand access to health care for uninsured Vermonters:

(Welch) “If we’re going to be successful in extending access and actually giving some relief to employers and employees with their health care costs, we’ve got to focus on the cost side. And that’s something that we simply haven’t done successfully. It takes some structural reform.”

(Kinzel) It’s expected that Jericho representative Gaye Symington will be elected by the Democratic majority as the new House Speaker. Symington wants to create a special committee in the House to look at health care reform and she’s hoping that some proposals will be developed that expand coverage and lower the cost of private premiums. Burlington representative John Tracy will chair this new committee:

(Tracy) “We’re all struggling as individuals to solve health care. It’s not working and I think people are willing to look at something different. And certain individuals – to include Governor Douglas – may have to move out of their comfort zone a little bit.”

(Kinzel) Lawmakers will also face tough priorities for the transportation budget, they’ll review school choice options, they’ll consider a plan to install dry cask storage at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant and it’s likely that they’ll debate a proposal to implement instant run off voting in Vermont.

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

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