Saturday, January 25, 2014

Legislative Update, January 25, 2014

Rep. Anne Donahue

Legislative Update

January 25, 2014


Last week we voted on the mid-year budget adjustment act. The budget adjustment is intended to allow for shifts in allocations from last year based upon unanticipated up or down trends in different parts of the budget.

As usual this year it was mostly up, but because revenues were also up over projections, it didn’t unbalance the budget. As a result, the majority seemed not to mind.

Most of the increases appeared justified on the surface. For example, there were a number of Irene-relocated offices where rent now must be paid by the state because the FEMA support has ended.

There was also “backfill” in several areas where federal sequestration cuts had hit, and a big increase -- $2.5 million – because of a shortfall in the emergency housing budget. It has been pretty cold out lately.

But wait.

Didn’t we know last year the FEMA money was going to end, and plan for those rents when the budget was developed?

Are we going to always just assume we put the funding in when the feds cut, without assessing the long-term budget impact?

The reason for the emergency housing budget gap was fairly clear, and also speaks to poor advance planning.

We had slipped into an atrocious bottomless pit through well intentioned efforts to keep people from being homeless in our streets. It’s atrocious in part because it uses hotels as the emergency shelter system.

The increase in cost has gone from $1.4 million in fiscal year 2011, to $2.8 in 2012, to $4.3 in 2013.

Last year, the legislature said, “enough,” and shifted much of that money into addressing longer-term housing solutions. We told the administration to create a priority list for need, and we cut the fiscal year 2014 emergency housing budget back to $1.5 million.

That isn’t a level of change that can happen in a single year. If the prior trend had not been curbed at all, this year’s spending would have hit $6 million. With efforts at change underway, the administration says the spending will be held to $4 million. That $4 million is $2.5 million more than budgeted, which is where the $2.5 million budget adjustment line item comes in.

(The priority list itself is under attack. Our committee was staggered to see that being a disabled veteran gets you one point of the four needed to qualify, which is exactly the same as being an individual on probation or parole with a recent release from prison.)

When we create a budget based upon planning that is overly optimistic, and put the “savings” from that optimism into other spending, then the overall budget can appear to be reasonable in terms of its increases, as last year’s did. When the bills come due, however, we’re in the red.

We have to pump new revenue into the holes, instead of having held the original budget to its more conservative estimates.

These may be hard projections to make, but it’s clear we have to do a better job, so that we don’t end up every winter with what amounts to a much bigger budget increase for the year than what we passed the prior spring.

For that reason, I voted against the increase in the current year’s bottom line. It passed on a 110-33 vote, and now heads to the Senate.


Next Year’s Budget

The details take a while to seep from the spreadsheets, but I’ve never heard a budget speech yet (either party) that didn’t promise to be balanced without raising taxes, while also offering new initiatives.

One part of the governor’s proposal for fiscal year 2015, however, has already raised some eyebrows. To help fill the gap between new spending and income without raising any “broad-based” taxes, he proposes raising $14 million by increasing a tax on insurance claim payments.

Who pays those? All of us who pay for health insurance – we’ll see it in our rates. At the exact same time, he is pushing a health reform plan that is supposed to rein in the costs of health insurance. When the rates go up next year to pay the $14 million, it will be more “evidence” of the out-of-control cost of insurance.


Who Pays for Mistakes?

One of the issues my committee took up this week was the ongoing failure of the state to bring down a nationally-highest error rate in processing food stamp applications. The food stamp program now had the federal acronym, SNAP, and the Vermont name, 3 Squares. (I perpetually misstate this as “4 Squares” – what square has three in it?)

This year, our error rate has exceeded nine percent, and we face another half-million or so in federal fines. Since food stamps are paid for completely by the federal government, it doesn’t look kindly on the overspending. In addition, it wants the money back that was given out in error.

So picture this: a struggling, working family, barely making ends meet. After applying for food stamps, the family is told that it is eligible for $200 a month in benefits.

They spend this. They buy food each month. It isn’t enough to cover the whole grocery bill, but it helps a lot.

A year goes by. Then they get a letter from the state telling them there was an error – absolutely no fault of the family. But actually, they were only eligible for $150 per month. So they get a bill for $50 times 12 months: $600.

Where exactly is that money supposed to come from? Stop the next oil delivery, maybe? Skip a month’s rent payment?

This is fundamentally unjust. The administration has failed to resolve its own errors, so low- income families have to pay to make up for it?

My committee is looking into ways to address this. If our own state budget has to be tapped to protect innocent victims, that will be one budget increase I will support.


Voice of the People

Our Constitution assures the people of the right to petition its government, and I frequently urge all of you to contact me with questions or concerns. Many of you do, and I appreciate that.  Sometimes, that information is very sensitive, such as when a constituent is seeking help with struggles with a state agency.

We are a citizen’s legislature, without any assigned staff, although with the help of legislative counsel for turning ideas in to bills.

We often seek input from advocates for various interests. Ideas are brainstormed via email. I enter into discussions about potential legislation with other legislators and members of the public. This kind of dialogue – and the ability to have a free flow of ideas – is critical to our process.

And thus, “freedom of deliberation” in the legislature is also a privilege protected under our Constitution. The interest in being able to have a confidential communication process among citizen legislators, legislative staff and members of the public is vital to the process.

If those communications were deemed to all be “public records,” I can only imagine the chilling effect it would have on the flow of ideas. How many citizens might become apprehensive about discussing concerns – or even just venting – if they knew anyone could request copies of the emails they sent?

How many legislators would feel unable to gain the benefit of seeking input from others, when ideas are still in the formative stage, and might evolve into something very different before being developed into a bill for introduction? I know that when I try to think of best outcomes, my own views benefits tremendously when critiqued or explored with me by others. If that thinking process was an open book, would I still feel able to share those early ideas freely?

For all those reasons, and the integrity of the very process of the workings of a citizen’s legislature, last week I formally refused a public records request by a mental health advocate. The request was for all email exchanges that I had this fall and winter with other legislators and with advocates from the hospital association related to legislation addressing the involuntary legal process sometimes used in mental health treatment.

I was served with the records request along with two Senators, and although we each came to our own decision after extended conversations with legislative counsel, we ended up in the same place. I had nothing specific in those particular emails that I feared disclosing, but the principle itself was too important to not take a clear stand.

That decision will no doubt come under criticism. I have long defended the importance of transparency in government, and that belief has not changed.

What is different here is that it involves the confidence of the public in the ability to access their legislators, and the ability of legislators to feel free to do initial exploration of ideas with others. Once bills are introduced and public debate has begun, every aspect of that legislative process must be open to full public scrutiny.


You can reach me to discuss this update, or any other subjects of concern, by calling me at home (485-6431) or by message at the legislature (828-2228), or by my home ( or legislative ( email. I welcome your input. This and past updates can be found at



Saturday, January 11, 2014

Legislative Update, January 10, 2014

Rep. Anne Donahue, Legislative Update, January 10, 2014

There was no time wasted starting the 2014 session. On day two, we heard the governor call for response to a public health crisis of opiate addiction, and the next morning my committee (House Human Services) held a joint hearing with House Judiciary and our Senate counterparts on the administration’s new pretrial services proposal.

Other first week updates in this report: budget pressures, the House vote on campaign finance reform, and bills introduced to clarify the end-of-life by physician prescription bill that became law last spring.

Pretrial Addiction Services

The pretrial services proposal, already drafted as a Senate bill, would insert a risk assessment and needs screening after arrest but before a person’s first court appearance. Based on the outcome, a prosecutor could choose to allow diversion into a pre-charge drug treatment program, and if treatment is completed, no charge would be filed.

If the prosecutor did not offer diversion, the assessment would be used in deciding upon conditions of pre-trial release. That release could include a treatment referral, and if completed successfully, the prosecutor could choose to drop the charges. Alternatively, after a conviction, the treatment outcome could be used to inform sentencing decisions.

I think we will have to keep very close watch on two aspects:

The greater that any system allows for more personalized approaches and for using discretion to affect what happens to a person, the risk increases that there will be injustice resulting from benefits going to some persons and not others.

Under this proposal, how a person is treated could vary dramatically based upon the new risk assessment tool, and we are a long way from having fool-proof ways of predicting who will succeed or not.

Every time we use the words, “a prosecutor could choose,” we create the danger of personal biases entering the justice system. There is both potential for good and potential for bad.

Second is the question of cost. The math always looks good when we project future savings through current investments. Money spent on creating this new system could easily be regained and more, when we save on the costs of future increases in addiction and crime, as well as the cost of locking people up in prison.

It’s rare, though, that we can actually put a finger on those savings in later years. We say the same about investments in preventive health care, education, and early intervention with troubled families. But we can really only speculate about what the increased costs might otherwise have been, if we had not spent the up-front money.

These are all about educated gambles, not sure-fire returns on investment. While the social benefits are clearer, the cost-benefits are less so.


My committee began reviewing two other big money issues in our first week: emergency housing for the homeless, and how to increase successful outcomes for families on Reach-Up (support to needy families.) Testimony came with pleas for new investments for future savings.

In just the past few years, we have almost quadrupled the budget for emergency housing: from $1.4 to $2.4 million in fiscal year 2012, to $4.35 million in fy 13. This includes a cold weather policy, which allows for housing everyone who asks if it is under 32 degrees and snowing, or under 20 and dry. (That has been 28 of the 31 days in December.)

This relief, however, comes mostly in the form of hotel vouchers, which doesn’t make much sense as public policy.

Last year, we tried to address this by shifting two-thirds of the money into developing longer-term housing solutions, and authorizing a priority system for emergencies. The system that resulted drew fire over the people being turned away (having a child age 6 or under grants a pass in the door, but there is no guarantee for a 7-year-old).

Despite that, the program is still running at almost the same as last year (projected at about $4 million), and the administration is requesting a budget adjustment to fill the $2.5 million gap. Without the change that created limits by priority groups, we would be spending $6 million this year on emergency housing.

Advocates urged an expansion of rent subsidies to making housing more affordable and help prevent homelessness. That begs the question: who becomes eligible for a subsidy? Every low income family struggles with the cost of housing. How much “prevention” can we afford, and be fair to all?

Support for Needy Families

We also reviewed a Reach-Up work group report on ways to develop greater personal responsibility among recipients and more effective support from the state in getting off the program.

Last year we placed a 5-year cap on benefits, even if a family had been following its development plan. (It allows for continuing benefits for those unable to find jobs if they provide equivalent community service work.)  There is no real money saved, but hopefully progress in overcoming the cycle of poverty.

The report came back with one core message: Caseworkers have such high caseloads that they often cannot even see the families that they are supposed to be supervising. Advocates are urging an increase in staff in order to achieve long term success.

Invest more now with the hope to save money and improve the quality of life for all, in the future? The War on Poverty celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and has yet to see that aim achieved.

In a year where we already face a projected $70 million budget shortfall if everything stays the same, all the talk of the need for new programs and program expansions should be enough to send a chill down any taxpayer’s spine.

Next Year’s Budget

This coming week, we will hear the governor’s budget address on how the administration proposes to address the gap. There are many concerns that are less emotionally appealing that the needs of struggling Vermonters, but that create significant future burdens if they are not addressed now.

We heard a presentation last month about the ongoing problem with the annual underfunding of the state pension fund. We are not even close to putting enough money in the budget each year to meet the minimum amount required so that the fund can pay out its obligations in the future. If your bank allowed you to underpay your mortgage every year, interest would build and the amount you would have to pay in the future would be hugely increased.

In its most direct terms, every dollar that we continue to fail to put into the fund means three dollars more that we will have to pay in the future. That’s not just an educated gamble about return on current investments. It’s hard financial fact.

We are also facing an estimated seven cent increase in the education tax rate for the second year in a row, in part from spending and in part from flat property values.

Our reliance on federal funds increased from 30 to 35 percent of our $5.2 billion budget this year, at a time when federal funding amounts are facing great uncertainty. Federal cuts are an enormous risk to our general fund and state tax burden.

We “spend” another one billion (16  percent of the entire $6.23 billion ball of wax) on money that we exempt from taxes to support another purpose, for example, the income-sensitivity provisions and current use program of the property tax.

The biggest chunks of that entire sum are K-12 education (27 percent), health care (24 percent), tax expenditures (16 percent), and transportation (9 percent).  All of the other categories, from social services to public safety to corrections to general government, have slices smaller than five percent.

The governor’s “State of the State” speech this week did not refer to any of these money issues, so it will bear careful listening in the budget address in the coming week.

Campaign Finance Reform

Last year, both the House and Senate had passed reform bills, and a conference committee was working out the differences. The final product came before the House this past week.

The bill will increase transparency – public access to the information on who is making contributions to whom – significantly. It also sets limits on how much money can be given to a candidate, varying based upon the different offices.

There were those who believe the limits are still too high for Vermont, and can still create undue influence on candidates by a single person or group. We have been to the United States Supreme Court and back on this issue, over a 1997 law that was deemed far too restrictive.

I think the most critical issue is the ability to know where the money is flowing, a point that Rep. Tom Koch of Barre made last year in his challenge to all of us to finally pass new reform legislation this year. The House passed the conference committee recommendation on a 124 to 15 roll call vote. Once passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, we will have finally achieved that.

End-of-Life Law

In the final days of the 2013 session, we passed a law permitting a doctor to prescribe lethal medication to a person with a terminal diagnosis of six months of less who wants the ability to end life before the final stages of the disease.

In the final negotiations to win votes, the original bill was stripped down, dropping many parts that had been included from the beginning and that were the basis for assertions that it included all of the protections against abuse that Oregon has. (It has permitted this practice for years.)

Several bills have already been introduced to address some of the unresolved issues. The law only gives immunity to doctors who act in compliance with its protocols. Rep. George Till, himself a doctor, has introduced a bill that would include pharmacists and consulting doctors, who had been included until the final version that passed last year.

I do not support the far reaches of this new law. We could have addressed the final days of life in better ways, without sanctioning doctors to write a prescription intended to cause death.

But given what we now have, I have introduced two bills to restore two other elements that were removed – or left in doubt – when the final bill was revised.

One would make it explicit that the request for and use of such a prescription must be by the individual themselves, and not through a guardian, agent, or other surrogate decision-maker. Vermont law is explicit in recognizing agents, in particular, as having the right to make any medical decision once the individual has lost decision-making capacity.

I don’t think we intended that to include prescriptions to bring about death, but that  clarification was removed from the bill last year.

Similarly, we have existing law that requires doctors to give full information to patients about the support options available to them when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness. It includes, for example, the right to hospice care and pain management. The new law includes a life-ending prescription as one of those support options.

That means doctors, even if not asked, must tell every such patient that a prescription to cause an early death is one of the options now available to them. It makes it sound like a suggestion.

Although this may have been intended by some proponents, I do not believe a majority in the legislature (or among Vermonters) would want that mandate placed on doctors. My bill would clarify that such information is mandated only if it has been requested.

Your comments and questions are welcome. Please keep in touch: email at, phone (485-6431), or message at the statehouse (828-2228.) This and past issue discussions can be found on my blog,