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Guest Editorial: Let Vermonters weigh the budget options

The state’s 2018 fiscal year hasn’t started yet, and already the administration is considering cuts. Vermonters deserve to know what’s at stake and have a chance to consider alternatives.
Vermont’s 2017 fiscal year ends on June 30. Technically, because of a gubernatorial veto, the state doesn’t have a budget yet for next year, but should have one in place after the June 21 special legislative session and before the end of the month. Nevertheless, Gov. Phil Scott’s administration is making contingency plans to cut spending for fiscal 2018, which will start on July 1.
Vermonters deserve to know what’s at stake and have a chance to consider alternatives. 
At this point, it appears the administration is being cautious. Both the administration and the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office anticipate that the economists who forecast state revenues will lower their estimates for the coming year. Late last month, the commissioner of finance and management asked various agencies and departments in state government to develop plans for absorbing cuts of 2 to 4 percent.
The picture should get clearer after the current fiscal year is closed out and the new revenue forecast is released in mid-July. Some areas of the budget will be exempt from the potential cuts. But Commissioner Andy Pallito told VTDigger last week that the agencies and departments affected could see spending reductions between $15 million and $30 million.
Whatever cuts are being considered, Vermonters should get an accounting of the consequences of the reductions. While the administration undoubtedly will find some legitimate reductions, for the most part, when positions are cut or resources are reduced, government services suffer.
Gov. Jim Douglas used to talk about doing more with less. But when he proposed across-the-board cuts, he drew criticism from an unexpected source — the then president of Ethan Allen Institute, John McClaughry. It wasn’t the cuts that McClaughry objected to; he thought it was unfair to give state employees fewer resources and expect them to do the same amount of work. In McClaughry’s view, for government to spend less, it has to do less.
But do people really want reduced public services? That’s the question Montpelier should be asking Vermonters if the economists conclude that revenue will drop off next year. Vermonters need to hear what services or programs the state will curtail. And they deserve to hear the options for increasing revenues if they decide they want to maintain current services.
Ideally, the state would have this kind of discussion each fall, when the administration is beginning to draw up its budget plans. We would have a current services budget, which the Scott administration published in greater detail this year than previous administrations had. It is an estimate of the cost of delivering all of the services the state is obligated or committed to provide. We would get the governor’s budget, which is the amount the administration proposes to spend. And where the governor’s budget falls short of what’s needed to meet the state’s commitments, we’d get an accounting of how the reduced budget will affect specific programs and services.
It’s prudent for the administration to be looking ahead and anticipating problems. And an early jump on fiscal 2018 insures there is plenty of time for Vermonters to hear and consider all of the options for addressing a drop in revenue.
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Editor’s note: Jack Hoffman is senior policy analyst at Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier nonprofit that aims to improve the well-being of ordinary citizens, especially the most vulnerable, by conducting research and fiscal analysis, disseminating information, and developing and advancing policies that state government can enact.

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