Editorial: Opportunity can be found in state’s limited budget

We know this legislative session will again be limited by tight budgets, challenged by tweaks to the state’s nascent health care reform and harassed by both sides of the aisle on hot-button issues such as “death with dignity,” how to fight drug-related crime, finding a solution to search and rescue procedures, potential statewide increases in the property tax rate, and possibly raising taxes to cover more cuts in federal aid.
But let’s also keep these challenges in perspective. Arguably, the Legislature has faced such challenges since the Great Recession and this year we’re in better shape that we have been since 2009-10. For the past two years, the state has faced deficits of more than $100 million and $70 million respectively, and during which the governor and Legislature ushered in a new era of health care, overcame the trials thrown at us by Tropical Storm Irene, and endured even more dramatic federal cuts across the board.
Yes, this year’s budget reductions will present hardships. As in the past, we’ll have to sharpen the budget knives and be efficient in our state programs and expenditures. No doubt, as Rep. David Sharpe of Bristol said when asked what the top three priorities will be of the upcoming session, “money, money, money” will be the overarching concern. (See story, Page 1A.) But this is also the new normal, and a refreshing perspective will be to take these limitations (as any business owner does) and imagine the opportunities available with the resources we have.
Our most obvious liabilities are readily defined: we’re looking at a projected $50 million deficit (due largely to expected federal cuts in Vermont’s Medicaid program); health care costs for teachers are projected to increase 14 percent at a time when local grand lists are not growing, thus putting pressure to raise the state property tax (for homesteads) by 5 cents; and we have obligations in the pipeline to pay for a new mental health care facility in Berlin that did not qualify (as yet) for FEMA funding.
Our assets are a flexible and creative Legislature that is not bedeviled by partisanship, a bold governor and a can-do attitude in Montpelier that is not afraid of tackling tough issues. With a budget of $5.01 billion, the state has adequate resources to meet basic needs, create new opportunities and get the job done.
The first order of business, therefore, is to start with an offensive — not defensive — agenda that focuses as much on job expansion and improved performance in our schools as it does racheting down on expenses in other areas of government.
One way to do that, as Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, suggested, was to look at the state’s unemployment insurance rules, which he rightly says currently discourage businesses from hiring new workers. Bringing Vermont’s rules more in line with other states could be a boost to businesses and stimulate job growth without costing taxpayers a cent. Sen. Bray is also drafting a “stragetic trades and professions” bill that would train young Vermonters in undermanned fields such as meat processing and large-animal veterinary services, and to continue pursuit of food-related businesses and industries to take advantage of Vermont’s wholesome brand. Both are areas of potential job growth that fit Vermont’s needs and strengths.
Rep. Paul Ralston proposes pursuing the technology of smart grid management within the energy sector as a way to grow a new industry in the state. “Vermont doesn’t have the geographic resources to support enough utility-scale electric generations, but Vermont can and should become a center for emerging energy tenchology,” he said. “There is a major economic development opportunity in these technologies and pursuing them will not compromise our wild places.” Perhaps Vermont’s state and private colleges could join with UVM to forge a statewide initative that might foster incubator businesses in this field supported by scholastic research.
We don’t dismiss the significant hurdles that we will face this legislative session, but if we approach the session as if it’s an opportunity to excel, rather than a slugfest to protect what has always been and bemoan the inevitable loss of funds, it’ll be a lot more fun — and more productive. The “we” in the previous sentence means all of us, including those institutions and programs facing more cuts — and their supporters. If we all fight tooth and nail for every penny we’ve always had, we’ll hit a stalemate. Rather, we all have to be gracious enough to recognize priorities, and wise enough to accept where the dollars spent will generate the greatest public good.
— Angelo S. Lynn
Editor’s note. This story was updated since its original posting to correct the location of the new mental health facility, which will be in Berlin.

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