The 2014 Legislative session kicks off Tuesday with lawmakers convening in Montpelier for the first day, which is largely ceremonial.
But soon, they’ll be digging into the big issues and challenges facing the state. VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb and Bob Kinzel discuss some of what lawmakers will be looking at this session.
Legislators will be dealing with a $70 million budget shortfall. Budget shortfalls are not new, but in pervious years there has been stimulus funding and other state funds available to close those gaps. Now that money is gone and lawmakers are going to have to reduce spending. It may be a time when both the House and Senate Appropriations Committee take a look at the hundreds programs in state government and say it’s time to put money into those that work and maybe eliminate those that don’t. The biggest part of the budget is for the Agency of Human Services. This could mean difficult decisions about programs that directly affect people and the quality of their lives.
If specific budget cuts are announced it could fuel calls to raise taxes. Some Democrats and Progressive lawmakers will support an income tax surcharge on the wealthy to preserve programs. It’s expected that the Governor Shumlin will oppose plans to raise taxes, and he’ll have to get together a coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats on board if he wants to defeat that effort.
Lawmakers are expected to discuss the way Vermont pays for education. But it’s unclear if 2014 will be the year that the state’s approach changes significantly. The number of enrolled public school students has been on the decline for the past decade, there are 20,000 fewer students. Meanwhile, school budgets are increasing, and for the second year in a row, the statewide property tax rate is facing a significant increase because school spending in aggregate across Vermont is going up.
Lawmakers might encourage local towns to keep spending down. They could lower the current threshold where towns pay penalties for additional spending. A more controversial approach would be changes to income sensitivity. That’s the program that allows some people to pay education taxes based on their income, not the value of their property, but changes to that program are bound the be controversial.
The House Health Care Committee has scheduled a week of oversight on Vermont Health Connect. Lingering questions about its effectiveness of the online exchange could dominate the first part of the session. The governor will be addressing the House and Senate Health Care committees on Tuesday.
The push toward a single-payer system could also be a topic of discussion this session. Governor Shumlin has decided to outline the menu of taxes that could be used to fund a single-payer system. That system is expected to cost $2 billion, and the governor wants to put it in place by 2017.
The governor is expected to outline a plan to address the problem in his State of the State address. That plan could include new rehab programs for first-time offenders to keep them out of jail if they complete the program.