Lawmakers prepare for showdown on $38 million in budget cuts

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County lawmakers and their colleagues will spend the next several days studying a list of $38 million in potential savings in state government intended to help shore up a $150 million hole in the fiscal year 2011 general state budget.
At issue is the “Challenges for Change” report presented to the Joint Legislative Government Accountability Committee on Tuesday. The report — a joint effort of legislative leaders and representatives of Gov. James Douglas — recommends a variety of measures the state and executive branches could take to save roughly one-fourth of the general fund gap.
Among the proposed long- and short-term initiatives, which were reviewed at Monday’s legislative breakfast in Middlebury, are:
• Reducing the number of Vermont school districts from 280 to fewer than 50.
• Increasing Vermont’s student-staff ratio. The state’s current ratio (from custodians to district superintendents) is 4.55 to 1. Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca wants to increase that to 4.75 to 1, which he said would eventually result in 600 fewer jobs and about $20 million annually in savings.
• Creating a commission to determine whether rural schools with fewer than 75 students are viable or should be merged with others.
• Reducing the state’s prison population by weeding out some of the non-violent offenders and use of electronic monitoring devices. Project savings: $7 million.
• Saving $16.8 million in human services expenses through, among other things, more integrated services; removing people from the client rolls when appropriate; and emphasizing/supporting services that allow elderly and frail Vermonters to remain at home rather than more costly residential programs.
The individual suggestions are already drawing mixed reviews from some lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln and Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton.
Jewett, who is also a member of the Ripton Elementary School board, is particularly concerned about the extent to which small schools are being targeted in “Challenges for Change.” He noted plans call for “Montpelier-mandated” school consolidations (as opposed to voluntary) with a specific emphasis on the smallest schools. Ripton’s school enrollment is in the mid-40s, with the forecast of further erosion of student numbers.
Jewett noted that $38 million represents roughly 3 percent of the state’s total annual school spending.
“Are we talking about throwing local control out the window and turning our back on small schools to save 3 percent?” Jewett said on Wednesday. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
He cited bill H.782 as an example of a voluntary school consolidation initiative that deserves support.
It should also be noted that the Addison Central Supervisory Union, of which Ripton is a member, is currently reviewing various school governance/resources consolidation options outlined in a report submitted last month by former Barre Superintendent Ray Proulx.
Fisher, who is vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, voiced his concerns about the “Challenges” report at the local legislative breakfast on Monday.
Fisher noted he voted against the original bill that launched the Challenges report because he had “a great deal of concern about the details.”
As those details emerge, Fisher said wants to make sure that items the report identifies as “efficiencies” are “really cuts in services.”
“I believe what we have to do is accept or reject parts of what the administration has proposed to us and put forward new ideas if we have them,” Fisher said. “If we need to push back and the administration can’t find $38 million in savings, then I think we have to ‘own it’ and call it cuts, and own it or say we can’t afford to reduce services in this way.”
Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury, agreed.
“There will be a second ‘Challenges bill’ that comes out after the deliberations from this next week and that will receive the full deliberation of the House and Senate,” Maier said on Monday. “Hypothetically, if the result of this process is that of the $38 million in savings and the House and Senate can only find $20 million that seems real or that we are willing to accept, then we’ll have to come up with $18 million in cuts from other parts of the budget, or revenue we might have to generate… ”
It’s a cost cutting process that Maier said will be difficult, but helpful.
“If there is any silver lining, this provides an impetus to perhaps look at things more creatively than we have done in the past,” Maier said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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