MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Legislature is going to focus its efforts during the 2014 session on erasing a projected $70 million state budget shortfall and helping the state get a handle on the growing abuse of opium-based drugs, something that is wrecking lives and driving crime, Senate and House leaders said Friday.
Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said committees in each chamber would begin work Tuesday.
"Every day we're here costs taxpayers money," said Campbell, of Windsor County. "I want to get the job done and then go back to our homes and not cost them any more money than we have to."
Smith, of Morristown, said the committees would get to work after brief opening remarks Tuesday. There's some outstanding legislation from the first year of the two-year session that is due to be resolved by a conference committee, and the House Appropriations Committee will work on a midyear budget adjustment bill.
"We'll hit the ground running," Smith said.
The Legislature will also deal with preparations for the state's first-in-the country move toward creating a single-payer health care system, now slated for 2017, as well as energy issues and a variety of other topics.
Gov. Peter Shumlin will lay out his vision for the next year in his State of the State address Wednesday. His budget address is to follow a week later.
Smith and Campbell said finding ways to erase a projected $70 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year would be the top priority.
"Every year we come in and usually find there's a shortfall," Campbell said. "This year is no different, except for the fact that we have gone to the well, looking in all those nooks and crannies for moneys that would be able to help us fill that shortfall, fill that gap, and they are bare."
So Campbell said he was telling his committee chairs to look for places in the state budget where existing programs aren't giving the state an adequate return on its investment, though he didn't cite any specific programs that could be targeted.
Campbell and Smith agreed that stemming the increasing problems of drug abuse needs to be a focus of the session, even though treatment programs needed to complement vigorous law enforcement will cost the state money.
Vermont's state and federal law enforcement agencies and officials have been sounding the alarm for some time about the rise of drug abuse, especially prescription drugs and heroin, their cheaper cousin.
Last year, Rutland Police Chief James Baker called the drug addiction problem in his city "mind-boggling."
And it's not just in Vermont's cities and towns.
"We are steadily losing a number of people within a generation to drug addiction; we need to help them get better because it costs us more in the cost of putting them in jail and the crimes that are associated with it," Smith said. "If we can make an investment in treatment, I think it saves us money in the long run."