Supreme Court, Douglas battle over proposed budget cuts

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(Host) There’s a constitutional battle brewing between the Vermont judiciary and the Douglas administration over proposed budget cuts.

The Vermont Supreme Court is challenging part of the administration’s process to trim $30 million from the new state budget.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Facing a sizeable revenue shortfall, the Douglas administration wants to make these cuts as quickly as possible.

The Administration determined that overall state spending needs to be cut by roughly 2.5% to reach this goal.  But the administration wants to exempt certain programs from the cuts, including the state police and the Corrections Department. And that means that most remaining programs will need to be cut by 5% to reach the budget targets.

The Vermont Supreme Court argues that this process is unconstitutional because the governor’s office exempted some of its own programs and put higher burdens on the judiciary, which is a separate branch of government.

Patricia Gabel is the spokesperson for the Vermont Supreme Court. She says the Court is willing to accept a 2.5% budget cut, but that’s it.

(Gable) “Because the judicial branch is a separate branch of government, it means that the judicial branch would then not have a proportionate cut to the rest of the state. And so there is a constitutional problem with the plan as proposed."

(Kinzel) Gabel also argues that the judiciary has a legal requirement to operate programs that are mandated by the Legislature and that the cuts could jeopardize some of these services.

(Gable) “If the Legislature creates particular courts or requires the courts to manage particular programs, the court is obligated to do so and it means that there needs to be funding for what the Legislature asks the court to do."

(Kinzel) Administration Secretary Mike Smith doesn’t think there’s a constitutional problem because he says he’s adhering to the specific provisions of a special budget cutting law.

(Smith) “It’s the law that talks about the process for recissions. I think that following the law is important in this process. We’re all in this together. This is taxpayer’s money."

(Kinzel) Smith says he’s "very disappointed" with the reaction from the Vermont Supreme Court:

(Smith) “Choosing the option of taking your toys and going home and not participating is not an option because it simply shifts that burden off to some other department or agency. There’s a process that’s set in law and we’re all following the process."

(Kinzel) What will happen if the two sides can’t resolve their budget differences? Court spokesperson Gabel says the Vermont Supreme Court will then have to consider its options.

(Gable) “If we don’t have a good dialogue with the other branches of government and there are unforeseen challenges, then the court will have to make the decision at that point what to do next."

(Kinzel) The Douglas administration is meeting with key lawmakers this week to try to reach consensus on a budget cutting plan.

They hope to present this plan to the Joint Fiscal Committee on August 19th.

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

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