The Legislature convened for the new biennium Jan. 9, and I began my new committee assignment on House Appropriations. I loved my six years of work on House Government Operations, the last two as chair – and I love what I am doing now. The sections of the state budget for which I am responsible are Public Safety; the Criminal Justice Training Council; Libraries; Forests, Parks, and Recreation; the Secretary of State; the State Treasurer; and the Office of the Governor. I need to know the program operations and the associated funding of these budget areas in depth, while being more generally knowledgeable and conversant about the budgets of the entirety of state government.

So, House Appropriations is currently working on the FY2020 budget. This is the budget which covers the work, the programs of the state government from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. Developing it entails our working five days a week, not the usual four legislative days. It means that we are never seen on the floor unless a roll call vote has been called. Actually, we are rarely seen anywhere but in our committee room. Why?

As a committee, we go deep into the numbers, hearing budget testimony from the state’s agencies, departments, commissions, councils, you-name-it, from all three branches of government. We look at new and old initiatives in terms of results-based accountability. We challenge unidentified resources needed past FY2020. We question proposed reductions as well as increases, position changes, perceived program delivery hurdles, use of “one-time” money, and the ever mysterious “vacancy savings.” We examine budgeted versus actual spending, carry-forward funds and reserves, and needs not addressed in the proposed FY2020 budget. Throughout, we keep in touch with the respective policy committees, and encourage representation sitting in when we are dealing with state programs within their jurisdiction.

We also reach outside the government for testimony as we develop the budget. We have time set aside specifically for advocacy groups to talk to us and to enter testimony formally into the record. This is, of course, in addition to the daily presence of advocates and registered lobbyists who share thoughts with us the moment we poke our noses out of the committee room.

We also reach out to the public in general through six regional public hearings. The one closest to South Burlington is being held at CCV in Winooski. The date is Feb. 25. The timeframe is 6-7 p.m., understanding that we stay beyond that time as needed. We also hope for written testimony from Vermonters who may not be able to attend a hearing. Send it right along to Theresa Utton at tutton@leg.state.vt.us. She is one of two committee assistants assigned to us from the Joint Fiscal Office.

Before we began work on the FY2020 budget, we needed to take care of the FY2019 budget adjustment. “Budget Adjustment” occurs midway through the fiscal year. It is a recalibration, a truing up so as to maintain the state budget in balance. It is fiscal discipline.

The adjustment needed was relatively small: A cumulative total of $9.4 million in “pressures” out of a total budget of $5.9 billion. With the July and January revenue forecasts, plus money not expended, there was approximately $50 million with which to work. This revenue was “one-time” money, not to be applied to on-going needs. Further, any expenditure needed to be linked to the FY2019 budget.

Here is a sampling of how money was applied:

• $22.2 million is paying off the internal loan for retired teacher health care, and $3.3 million is an additional payment to the corpus of the retired teacher pension. This saves taxpayers literally multiple millions in interest payments.

• $1.8 million is an investment in state government cybersecurity.

• $2.5 million is an investment in child care programs.

• $5 million is targeted to a substance use disorder workforce plan at UVM and Northern Vermont University.

• $9.8 million is reserved in the “Rainy Day Fund.” This investment is particularly important given the very gloomy outlook for FY2021.

The legislation encompassing the budget adjustment is H.97. It was sent to the Senate on unanimous votes from the full House. As I write this, the Senate is completing its work on H.97, after which the bill will come back to the House. House Appropriations will likely recommend to the full House either that we concur with changes proposed by the Senate or that we ask for a committee of conference to work out differences. By the time you read this, the resolution will be known.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at mftownsend@comcast.net, by phone at 802-862-7404, at my home at 232 Patchen Road, on the street, or at Trader Duke’s from 8:30 to 9:30 on Saturday mornings.

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