President’s budget strongly criticized by Vermont congressional delegation

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(Host) When President Bush released his budget details on Monday they hit Vermont’s congressional delegation hard. Congressman Bernie Sanders says the budget unfairly targets veterans and the poor. The president’s $2.6 trillion budget eliminates spending for Amtrak. And it trims funding for home heating programs, Medicaid and milk price supports.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) One part of the budget more than doubles the amount veterans would have to spend for co-payments on prescription drugs. It also sets a $250 fee for some veterans to access government-run health care.

Congressman Sanders says the priorities in the budget are backward.

(Sanders) “People who put their lives on the line defending this country should not be driven off of VA health care. They should get the benefits that they have been promised.”

(Dillon) According to Sanders, the fiscal foundation of the budget is based on tax breaks for wealthy people. The president wants to make those tax cuts permanent.

(Sanders) “And then he is saying, ‘We can’t afford to take care of our veterans. We’ve got to cut back on fuel assistance for the elderly and the poor, we’ve got to cut back on education; we’ve got to cut back on police protection.’ I think those priorities are absurd, and I will be very much involved in congressional efforts to reverse them.”

(Dillon) The budget proposal runs more than 2,400 pages and congressional staff members were scrambling to digest the details late Monday. A spokesman for Senator Patrick Leahy said that a key program to help dairy farmers is included in the budget, although the president wants to cut spending for milk price supports by five percent.

Fuel assistance for low income people would also take a hit. The Bush budget cuts $200 million from home heating aid to the poor.

Independent Senator Jim Jeffords called the budget a fiscal time bomb. According to Jeffords, the president’s budget proposal determines that bankruptcy is the solution for the rail passenger system. The budget eliminates spending entirely for Amtrak, which has two routes in Vermont.

The budget cuts Medicaid funding by $45 billion over 10 years. Vermont receives about $537 million in Medicaid, and state officials are negotiating with the federal government for a five-year commitment in Medicaid spending.

Finance and Management Commissioner Rob Hofmann says the five year plan would give Vermont predictability and flexibility in using Medicaid funds.

(Hofmann) “And one of the things we’re looking with the global commitment is to see if by going to the federal government and voluntarily offering to be a demonstration project for this type of project, could we negotiate far more favorable terms voluntarily than might be imposed on us and 49 other states, than might be imposed on us involuntarily by federal budget pressures.”

(Dillon) Critics of the federal budget, including Vermont’s congressional delegation, say the proposal is unrealistic because it fails to include about $80 billion in additional spending that the administration says it needs for the war in Iraq.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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