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Vermont's Zero-Growth State Budget Shifts Burden To Agencies

Vermont agency heads are being told to develop zero-growth budgets and absorb rising costs themselves without additional funding from the state next year.

The ink on this year’s state budget is barely dry. But the Shumlin administration is already putting together next year’s spending plan, and agency heads have been instructed to develop zero-growth budgets.

“Caution” and “restraint" are the two words Administration Secretary Justin Johnson is using to characterize the state’s approach to building next year’s budget. And caution and restraint, at this point at least, mean a level-funded spending plan for next year.

“Level funding essentially means that agencies and departments will be required to present a budget to us that doesn’t need any more money than they had last year,” Johnson says.

Delivering zero-growth budgets will be no small challenge for the secretaries and commissioners responsible for adhering to Johnson’s directive. The cost of running government, like most everything else in life, goes up every year. Whether it’s salary jumps for state workers, rising health insurance premiums or increased energy expenses, maintaining government at existing operational levels will cost more next year than they did this one.

“So in a level-funding exercise, we’re expecting agencies and departments to absorb those increases,” Johnson says.

How exactly they absorb those increases is where the conflict begins to arise. Johnson says creativity and innovation will allow agencies to improve operations and reduce costs without any terrible impact on the people government is supposed to serve.

"In a level-funding exercise, we're expecting agencies and departments to absorb those increases." - Justin Johnson, Administration Secretary

“So then they might have to look at, well how are we doing this program? How are we doing the work? Could we do it with fewer people?” he says.

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, says the possible program cuts will more likely be the straw that breaks state government’s back.

“So when I hear level funding, what I hear is a budget that is like to ignore the reality on the ground that in certain places that the public values, we are at the breaking point,” Howard says.

Howard says key state services are on the cusp of collapse. And he says recent studies underscore the need for more corrections workers, improved courthouse security and more staff for child-welfare offices.

“If we’re going to keep children safe, we need additional DCF workers. Some estimate to adequately take care of the children coming into custody — 33 percent increase in the last year or so — we need 40 to 60 additional social workers,” Howard says.

"If we're going to keep children safe, we need additional DCF workers." - Steve Howard, Vermont State Employees Association

In a dilemma that boils down to money, Howard says chopping services, or laying off employees, is the easy way out.

“It’s harder to say to people who have enormous wealth, and a tremendous amount of power that comes with that,’ hey listen, we need to preserve our state’s basic infrastructure, we need to keep this state strong, healthy and vibrant. And it’s going to mean an additional investment,” Howard says.

Johnson says Howard’s voice isn’t the only one his administration has to listen to.

“For everybody who says that, and plenty of people do, I also get a bunch of other people who say, ‘I can’t afford to pay anymore,’” Johnson says.

The administration budget in the end will likely go up by at least as much as revenues are projected to rise 3 percent, according to the latest economic forecast.

Secretaries and commissioners have until September 25 to submit their budget plans.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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