Thursday January 3, 2013

DAVE GRAM

Associated Press

MONTPELIER -- Vermont lawmakers preparing to begin their 2013 session next week face another tight budget year, as evidenced Wednesday by the Shumlin administration's presentation of midyear adjustments to a spending package passed last spring.

Each January, as lawmakers ready for the governor to present a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins the following July, they begin drafting separate legislation tinkering with the current fiscal year's budget midstream. That was the package getting the attention Wednesday as a top aide to Gov. Peter Shumlin briefed the media and then a House committee on proposed midyear changes.

Among the pressures on the revenue side, Shumlin and Commissioner of Finance and Management Jim Reardon cited uncertainty tied to ongoing budget deliberations in Washington. Vermont got more than $2.5 billion of the $6.3 billion it spent in fiscal 2012 from the federal government.

In an extraordinary New Year's Day compromise, Congress averted the much-discussed "fiscal cliff" that would have triggered a wide range of automatic spending cuts and tax increases. But the deal focused mainly on taxes, and left spending cuts to future discussions. In Montpelier, Shumlin and lawmakers have agreed to push back his annual budget presentation to the Legislature by a week to Jan. 24, in hopes of giving the federal fiscal picture more time to clarify.

Vermont currently is "not well-positioned to deal with future federal funding cuts, should they come," Reardon said.

He said officials have been grappling with a nearly $11 million downgrade in the state's revenue forecast for the current fiscal year that was issued just weeks after it began in July -- a result of a slow economic recovery. That, combined with more people being served by the various departments within the Agency of Human Services, is creating a fresh round of tightrope walking for the administration and legislative budget writers.

One area of upward pressure for spending is coming in the state's mental health system, which has been in upheaval since late August 2011, when the 54-bed Waterbury State Hospital, the state's largest public psychiatric facility, was forced to close by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene. Vermont's plan has been to move to a more decentralized system using smaller psych units around the state and beefed up community services.

Reardon said the costs of doing that would increase by about $20 million, bringing Vermont's current mental health budget to about $194 million.

More people have been seeking help from the state's two principal welfare program, also creating pressure for more spending. The administration is asking for nearly $2.2 million more for general assistance, and a nearly $4.7 million increase for the Reach Up program, which seeks to place welfare recipients in jobs.

Reardon expressed confidence that Vermont would not run a budget deficit. He said the state had reserve funds it could tap into to help cover the gaps between now and the close of the fiscal year in June. He also said more than $4 million collected by the attorney general's office in settlements of lawsuits it had brought would help as well.