Unresolved Bills Loom Before Adjournment

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(Host) Legislative leaders are hoping to adjourn by this weekend. But as VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, there are still a number of very difficult issues that will have to be resolved in order for that to occur.

(Kinzel) As this week opens, only members of the Senate will be at the Statehouse. House Speaker Walter Freed has sent his members home until several key conference committees report significant progress on a number of issues. Here’s where some of the biggest fights will take place:

The State Budget for next year: The House wants to make structural changes to the state’s Medicaid program to bring costs for this program under control including co-payments and higher deductibles for drug assistance programs for the elderly. But many Democratic senators refuse to support these cuts. House Appropriations Chairman Richard Westman says the cuts are needed to insure the long term health of these programs:

(Westman) “With the projections from Joint Fiscal are, if we don’t change the program we have a $35 million shortfall within two years in Medicaid. Even with 67 cents on the cigarette tax, we can’t go there.”

(Kinzel) But Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin says the House cuts are unfair:

(Shumlin) “What the House and the governor are saying is,’Cut the money that we allocated to those programs and tell vulnerable Vermonters who are dependent upon them that we just can’t help them anymore.'”

(Kinzel) Another flashpoint is reapportionment: A House plan to give four representatives to the city of South Burlington has Democrats very upset because in order to make that plan work, the South Burlington districts have to be smaller than neighboring districts in Burlington and Winooski. House Majority Leader John LaBarge insists that the proposal is fair:

(LaBarge) “We’re not moving on South Burlington. There are some things that we want out of this plan, and right now South Burlington is one of them and we’re not moving on it. I hate to tell the Senate Democrats this, but they’re not in control of everything here and there are going to be negotiations.”

(Kinzel) Governor Howard Dean, who doesn’t often signal veto threats, is making it clear that this plan is unacceptable:

(Dean) “I am not going to sign a bill that has a whole ton of people in one district and a much smaller number in another. This notion that we’re going to cram a whole lot of people into Burlington and have South Burlington have four representatives when they deserve 3.6 is not something that’s going to get by my desk.”

(Kinzel) The House also wants to make some changes to the Senate’s reapportionment map, however Senate members says there’s virtually no chance that they will support these changes. Other outstanding issues include funding for a commuter rail project in Chittenden County, logging on the state’s portion of the Champion lands, legislation to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and a bill that makes changes to the state’s income tax system.

If all these issues can be resolved in a timely manner, then House members will return on Thursday to begin the Legislature endgame. But if the issues aren’t resolved by mid- week, then the date of adjournment could be very much up in the air.

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

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