This week the State House is abuzz with activity. The two major reasons are the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) and a House education bill that would increase the per pupil spending caps by .9%, which were enacted last year The Senate passed a bill that would eliminate the spending caps altogether.
In last year’s education bill, per pupil spending caps were enacted in an attempt to curb spending in response to concerns over higher property taxes. Schools with higher per pupil spending were going to be limited to lower spending increases for the FY2017 and FY2018 budgets. One would think that this strategy might be effective, but spending caps tend to be a blunt instrument that does not take into consideration higher health care and special education costs over which local school boards have little control. If per pupil spending exceeded the allowable cap, a penalty would be levied, making taxes even higher. It also assumes that school boards are spending money willy-nilly rather than the thoughtful, frugal consideration I have experienced as a School Board member and witnessed in other boards.
The Budget Adjustment Act is one of the first bills we work on every Session. The budget adjustment process involves a mid-fiscal year review of the status of the various agencies and departments of state government. In some cases, they are right on track but in others there may be additional needs, in which case, if possible, adjustments are made to accommodate them. Remarkably, there are some programs that have more money than they need.
One of the areas where we are doing better than expected is in labor. Assumptions were made in the FY2016 budget that we would achieve savings through retirements, by not filling vacancies, and by reducing operating costs. The good news is that we achieved the targeted labor savings in vacancies and retirements and exceeded our targeted efficiency savings.
As a result of the recent tragic deaths of children under the supervision of the State and the killing of a State social worker, there is recognition that we do not have enough social workers to deal with the increased caseload in the Department of Families and Children. Consideration is being given to converting eleven temporary positions to permanent status and creating twenty-four additional positions to meet this urgent need. The necessity for these positions is associated with the increased numbers of children taken into state custody due, in large part, to substance abuse.
Another area where we are doing better than expected is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as LIHEAP. There has not been the demand we expected for these funds so we will determine how to reallocate the unobligated portion of the money.
Medicaid is a place where we need to come up with additional funds. When the FY2016 budget was constructed, an anomalous 53rd week of Medicaid payments was not taken into consideration, which is worth $10.3 million. Work continues on how to deal with this.
One of the bills that the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC) worked on this week would designate the Gilfeather turnip the State Vegetable. We heard testimony from former State Representatives, Will Stevens, an organic vegetable farmer from Shoreham, and John Moran from Wardsboro. We also heard from Rep. Laura Sibilia from Dover and Rep. Barbara Murphy of Fairfax who sponsored the bill at the request of one of her constituents – a history buff with knowledge of the Gilfeather turnip. To emphasize the economic development opportunity aspect, the chef from The Garrison Restaurant in Washington, DC, Rob Weland, testified as to the popularity of the dishes that he serves using the Gilfeather. Some of us see this as another branding opportunity for a Vermont-based product, even though it is grown in other states.
The highlight of the testimony was the presentation given by sixth-graders from the Wardsboro School. They knew their facts and gave a cogent argument for why the Gilfeather should be designated the State Vegetable. The students were interviewed by WCAX and Fox 44 television, which they handled with grace and ease. If you want to see the WCAX report, go to http://www.wcax.com/story/30959310/vt-house-to-vote-on-gilfeather-turnip-for-state-vegetable.
While there are those who may think that work on this bill is frivolous, I would ask what the value of a child’s education is worth. The Wardsboro children and other students following this story are learning how the Legislature works and how bills are enacted. It also focuses attention on the Gilfeather turnip and promotes it as a Vermont product, which may increase sales and encourage people to attend the Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro next fall. I did last October and can vouch for how much fun it is! HAFPC passed the bill out of committee, which will be on the Floor of the House on Tuesday and Wednesday.