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



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