By Guy Page
Can the Vermont Legislature cut its way out of a looming $400 million budget deficit in next year’s budget? Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe thinks not.
“We often hear when we go back to our constituents, people will rightly say, ‘government spends too much,’ Ashe said on VPR’s Vermont Edition Thursday May 7 (35 minute mark). “And we ask the same question — ‘tell us the program you want to get rid of.’ And that’s much harder, because the more you scrutinize the state budget, with the Great Recession and the austerity years, there’s not a lot of fat on the state budget. If you trim here and there, it’s usually very small numbers, not the kind of thing that really digs yourself out of a multi-hundred dollar program.”
“Which is not to say that we will throw in the towel and give up,” Ashe said. He hopes Gov. Phil Scott will become less “rigid” about increasing taxes. He hopes the federal government will let states plug the deficit with federal recovery money ($1.2 billion for Vermont).
But on one point Ashe is absolutely certain: “cuts alone cannot deal with a $427 million deficit.”
Ashe would limit cuts to programs that “don’t affect people’s basic needs being met, and don’t substantially alter the nature of our state.” When Ashe was first elected during the Great Recession of 2008, Gov. Jim Douglas wanted to cut land trust funding. “I remember thinking, it’s tough times like these that really shine the light on what you value the most. And we were able to prevail.”
“Hopefully it [budget reduction] will be kept to a minimum and around the edges,” Ashe said.
Not all Vermonters share Ashe’s timidity about wielding the fiscal scalpel, of course. A recession looms. 2021 property taxes are estimated to rise $390 on a home valued at $150,000. Now might be a good time to cut non-essential spending. Now might be a good time for Vermonters to take up Ashe on his offer: “tell us the program you want to get rid of.”
Surprised and happy to comply, would-be citizen budget cutters plunging into the state budget may soon find themselves lost in a dense thicket of numbers and line items. For example Gov. Scott’s 1,360 page proposed 2021 budget offers no user-friendly section explaining “here’s what this money is really being spent on.” In fact, the entire budget process seems to ignore the curious layman in an earnest effort to keep the budgetary conveyor belt moving briskly along.
Trying to pull budget cuts out of the entire budget is like trying to hike the Long Trail in one trek. It’s not impossible but the layman is advised to make day hikes instead. Try the annual office/departmental Budget Request. It has individual salary information, recommended increases in payrolls and operations, and funding asks for new projects. Sometimes it even explains the requests. It’s granular. It’s the Rosetta Stone of budget docs.
For example, in the 22 page Executive Office (Governor) budget request you’ll find the governor’s proposed salary/benefits package of $238,000, and $191,000 for his chief of staff (pg. 19). Last year the governor’s office paid $255,000 in a “fee for space charge” under the Rental Property category (pg. 17). Rent for the fifth floor at the Pavilion Office Building? Good question. Granular data like these inform questions, discussion and conclusions on which the specific budget reductions Ashe requests can be proposed. Below are links to budget requests for the Agency of Administration and its departments:
Department of Buildings & General Services
Department of Human Resources
Agency of Administration
Department of Finance & Management
Department of Libraries
Department of Taxes
Executive Office (Governor)
VOSHA Review Board
Of course, there are dozens of departments within state government. But many hands make light work. Motivated citizen budget cutters could seek each out and band together. Former legislators would be invaluable guides. Hurting taxpayers of Vermont, unite! You have nothing to lose but your pains.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports.