Special Vermont committee sees $38M in savings

AP News
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Posted: Jan 05, 2010 5:55 PM

A special Vermont legislative committee and its consultant have produced $38 million in suggested savings for the next fiscal year, with about twice that promised the following year. It's considered a down payment on a projected $150 million budget gap and $8 million more than the goal assigned last spring.

"This is about a quarter of the gap, the general fund gap that we're going to be dealing with, but it's an important first step," Gov. James Douglas said Tuesday after receiving the report prepared by the Public Strategies Group consulting firm.

A day of briefings on the report and the state's budget situation came as lawmakers recovened Tuesday for the second half of their 2009-2010 session.

Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville said that of the $38 million in savings in fiscal 2011, $7 million would come from the state's Corrections Department and $17 million from other departments within the Agency of Human Services.

In Corrections, the report called for jailing fewer nonviolent offenders. "Vermont may be incarcerating some offenders who do not need to be incarcerated and would be less likely to (reoffend) if not incarcerated in traditional setting," it said, adding that earlier addiction treatment may keep people whose crimes are caused by abuse of alcohol and other drugs from getting into deeper trouble.

With other human services programs, the report called for greater integration of programs, reducing redundancy of services and making it easier for people relying on the programs to have their needs met. Financial eligibility guidelines need to be streamlined so state staff and people being served can understand them more easily, it said.

It added, "Instead of receiving separate assistance from WIC (the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program), fuel assistance, food stamps, Reach-Up (job training), and child care subsidy, a primary care manager could commingle funds or service allocations into one budget _ and then clients would create self-sufficiency plans ... designed to move them out of poverty as quickly as possible."

Babak Armajani of the Public Strategies Group repeatedly cautioned lawmakers during briefings on Tuesday that some _ especially advocates for low-income Vermonters _ will fight efforts to save money on human services programs.

The report itself said, "There will be great resistance to every one of these challenges. This is natural; in fact, it is desirable because the resistance can teach us what we need to know to make the changes successful."

The budget savings are being sought as the state struggles to recover from the recent economic downturn. Douglas, a Republican, was joined in his support for them by House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, both Democrats.

The agreement marked a sharp turnaround from the end of last year's legislative session, when Douglas vetoed the major budget bill and lawmakers overrode his veto.