January 7, 2016

Vermont State Legislators returned to Montpelier this week facing significant, although not unexpected, challenges.

For at least the last seven plus years, we have gone from budget crisis to budget crisis, yet have never addressed the underlying structural deficiencies in our state government.  In what has become the new normal, we face tens of millions of dollars in budget deficits each year because we have increased state spending by 5% year over year, while our revenues have grown at less than 2%.

And, this year is no exception.

The first challenge is to resolve a $40 million hole in the current year’s budget, the majority of which is in the troubled Medicaid program, due to a higher than anticipated caseload and the 53rd week of this year that the Shumlin Administration purposefully excluded from its budget development last year.

Even more troubling, however, is the almost $60 million budget gap in Fiscal Year 2017.  How to address this challenge is the question now.  Will it be broad cuts to programs?  Will it be increased taxes and fees?  Will it be a combination of both?

My plea to the Governor and my legislative colleagues on this front is to focus on long-term, structural reform of state government to bring it into the 21st century.  We need to ensure that our government works again for Vermonters.  By examining every division, department and agency across state government, we can determine where they share clients (ie: Vermonters), where there is a duplication of services, and how to bring greater efficiencies to the programs they deliver – through technology and otherwise.

In addition to the efficiencies we must find, we must also ensure that state government is actually serving Vermonters.  We live in a different world, and Vermonters have different expectations than even five years ago.  Great customer service is the norm now – from our local resorts, retail stores and restaurants, to Amazon and Netflix – and must be such from state government.  Every state employee or contract agent must understand that any Vermonter who contacts him, or over whom he has regulatory authority, is his customer, and should be treated as such.  By ensuring this customer service culture across state government, we will instill again the faith and trust in state government that Vermonters once had.

Of course, there are many other items to address this year as well.  At the top of my priority list continue to be economic growth and education funding reform and property tax relief.

I continue to serve on the Commerce and Economic Development Committee, and look forward to continuing our work of the last few years to grow our economy here in Vermont.  While our successes have not been monumental, overarching changes in our economic development strategy, they have been good, sound developments, both in terms of public policy and fiscal policy.  They are modest investments in proven economic growth strategies that have already helped our state’s small businesses and entrepreneurs, and will continue to do so.  I think, however, we can do more.

I will also continue my fight for education funding reform and property tax relief.  While I had hoped that we would address this last year, as so many leaders had promised, we instead focused on school district consolidation with the passage of Act 46.  Given the probable unconstitutionality of the allowable growth percentage (spending cap) included in the bill, and the disingenuous assertions by leaders last year that school choice would be maintained under the bill, legislators are rightly concerned and vowing changes to the law early on this session.

While I would like to see us focus on actual tax relief after addressing the problems of Act 46, I am not at all hopeful.  Rest assured, however, I will continue my fierce advocacy, regardless.