State holds interactive budget forum at multiple sites


BENNINGTON -- The State of Vermont held the second of two interactive Public Budget Forums on Tuesday, giving concerned Vermont residents a chance to direct questions and comments to administration officials.

The forum was held via teleconference, with citizens at 14 sites taking turns making comments or asking questions. Vermont Interactive Technologies hosted the event. The VIT studio in Bennington is located at the Senior Center.

Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding and Deputy Commissioner of Finance & Management Sarah Clark represented the state. Clark was filling in for Commissioner Jim Reardon, who was unable to attend the conference. In the Bennington studio, state Rep. Alice Miller was in attendance, as well as representatives from the Vermont Workers' Center and United Counseling Services.

The conference began with a short presentation by Clark on the budget process. She noted that Vermont had become increasingly reliant on federal funds since around 2008. As federal funds are cut back, Vermont now faces several key budget items not receiving the funding they once did. Gov. Peter Shumlin recently asked department heads to aim for level funding when submitting their budget requests this year.

The largest expenditures in the Vermont budget are for K-12 education and Medicare.

The first question came from Bennington, with Lee Russ of the Vermont Workers' Center asking Spaulding to explain the reasoning behind funding cuts to many important aid programs, such as WIC and 3SquareVT.

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"Over time, Vermont has become very reliant on federal funds," Spaulding echoed from Clark's earlier presentation, "and as the federal government backs out, we have to make do." Spaulding went on to say that the Shumlin administration was working with other governors to lobby for cuts to the SNAP program in the upcoming Farm Bill to be limited, which would help offset some of the decreases in state funding.

Questions then rotated through the other 13 sites, where many of the questions and comments focused on aid and mental health programs. Max Barrows, of Green Mountain South Advocates, was in the Montpelier studio with Spaulding and Clark. Barrows expressed concern that people who already received benefits from the state programs were having their benefits cut, while the programs as a whole continue to grow. "It's robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Barrows, "Why are you not adding enough money to the system to meet the needs?"

"The [developmental services] budget has gone up faster than any other part of the budget," Spaulding replied, "We have to live within the budget passed by the legislature, which was a significant increase." Spaulding went on explain that the budget for developmental services has increased by 6 percent, twice as much as the budget on a whole. "Trying to be fair and compassionate in divvying up the funds is one of the toughest things we have to do, on a day to day level," he said.

The second and final person to speak from Bennington was a client of UCS, who introduced herself as Lisa. She had lived in Bennington for the past 20 years, and had been with UCS for the past 17. "Sometimes," she said, "when you take away the budget, it impacts all of our lives. It hurts us that you keep taking money away from [people with disabilities]."

Spaulding responded, "On spending per capita, or any metric, Vermont is one of the highest-spending states out there." Later, faced with similar questioning about the developmental services budget being cut, he responded, "In the area of developmental services, there has not been a cut. It's simply a matter of whether the increase in funding has been enough to meet the ongoing demand."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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