MONTPELIER -- (AP) The Vermont Senate appeared likely Monday to advance a $1.44 billion general fund budget, with increases for Medicaid providers, health care for retired teachers, higher education and affordable housing.
When separate transportation, education and other funds are added in, the state is on track to spend about $5.5 billion in the fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1. The House passed a similar version of the budget in late March. Any differences usually are worked out in a conference committee with three members each from the House and Senate.
While there appeared little chance the Democrat-dominated Senate would deviate much from the version of the budget passed by its Appropriations Committee, several senators expressed concern that long-term spending trends for health care, housing and other programs might not be sustainable.
"We are reaching a critical point of conflict between the dollars spent and the capacity of taxpayers to pay," said Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden. "More and more we must make every dollar responsive to the needs of our citizens."
Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Jane Kitchel said the main concerns her committee heard as it drafted the budget were from health care providers serving Medicaid beneficiaries and from advocates for more affordable housing for low-income Vermonters.
The Senate restored a 2 percent increase in payments for health care providers who serve Medicaid beneficiaries. That was the amount requested by Gov. Peter Shumlin, but the House had trimmed that increase to 0.75 percent.
The Appropriations Committee also boosted funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board by 9 percent, about $400,000, to support development of more housing for lower-income Vermonters.
"We heard time and again during hearing testimony by outside agencies how important housing is," said Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington. "It’s important for getting people out of jail. It’s important for getting people off the street."
The House version of the budget had a $400,000 increase for higher education, to be divided among the University of Vermont, Vermont State Colleges and the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. financial aid program. Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said that increase would have a negligible effect on those institutions.
So the Appropriations Committee decided to use the $400,000 instead for programs targeted at the three high schools with the lowest rates of students continuing on to higher education.
One of the most heated debates came over the weatherization program, in which the state helps lower-income Vermonters insulate and otherwise tighten up their homes for energy savings. The budget called for reducing funding for that program from about $12 million to about $11 million.
Some senators made impassioned speeches defending weatherization, saying that some of a funding boost for new business development should go to weatherization instead.
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, was among those arguing that spending on weatherization would save the state money it spends on energy assistance to low-income households.
"The waste of heating badly insulated houses is a bad use of the money that has been entrusted to us," he said.