Tag Archives: budget rescissions

With all due respect to Hal Cohen…

So yesterday Governor Shumlin filled two vacancies in his cabinet. Justin Johnston was announced, in a brief flurry of bad Aussie jokes, as Jeb Spaulding’s replacement in the role of Shumlin’s Rasputin Secretary of Administration.

And Hal Cohen will become Human Services Secretary.

Justin Johnson, Gov. Shumlin, and -- barely visible in back - -Hal Cohen.

Justin Johnson, Gov. Shumlin, and — barely visible in back — Hal Cohen.

Now, I’m sure Hal Cohen is a nice guy and he’s clearly dedicated to the field of social services, having served as head of Capstone Community Action for 18 years. You don’t keep that job for that long unless you’re committed to the mission.

But is he really the best guy for the biggest agency in state government? And even worse, an agency facing an immediate mandate to cut its current-year budget by ten million bucks?

I know virtually nothing about Hal Cohen. But here are a few numbers that portray his challenge in very stark terms.

AHS: 3,500 staff. Annual budget, from general fund: nearly $600,000,000.

Capstone: 180 staff. Annual budget, $16,000,000.

In short, Hal Cohen is making a quantum leap as a manager. At a time when he will face a massive management challenge from Day One.

Cohen does bring some positive qualities to the job. He is deeply involved in delivering services to those in need, which is a very good thing. He has managed a nonprofit social services agency for a long time, and that’s a very good thing.

But he has never managed an organization anywhere near the size and complexity of AHS. When you manage a staff of 180, you do a lot of hands-on, day-to-day management. You have a personal relationship with a sizeable chunk of your employees, and you probably know them all by name.

When you manage a staff of 3,500, you’re delegating almost all of the work. You’re managing the managers — or, more likely, managing the managers’ managers. And if you spend time building personal relationships with your staff, you’re probably not doing your job.

That’s the basic challenge in making this quantum leap.

And then you add the fact that, between this year’s budget and the next, he may well be asked to make spending cuts equivalent to the entire annual budget of Capstone.  

I’m sure that if Shumlin had pulled someone out of the business world, or out of some other state agency, we’d all be howling about hiring a bean-counter who cares more about the bottom line than helping people. (For example: Johnston saying that the primary goal of the budget is “affordability.” Meaning no new taxes.) But I have to wonder if Cohen is the right person for this job at this time. And I also have to wonder, with all due respect to Hal Cohen, how many other people might have said “no” to the idea of becoming the head of an overstretched agency facing major budget cuts. It’s hard to imagine that Cohen was the first name on the list.

I hope, for the sake of Vermont’s poor, that my misgivings are proven to be groundless.

Shumlin’s Newsdump-a-palooza rolls on

If you regularly read this page, you don’t need to be reminded what a newsdump is. But just in case: it’s the popular maneuver of unloading bad news when the media and the public are least likely to notice. Friday afternoons are the most common times. The final working day before a holiday weekend is ideal.

The Shumlin administration has been making a habit of this lately, and now there are two more newsdumps on the horizon. The first, regarding budget cuts, and the second, Shumlin’s long-awaited big reveal on single-payer health care.

The administration hit a two-fer on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, ensuring minimal and shallow coverage of its planned $17 million in budget rescissions, and little to no coverage of its plan to make two-thirds of the cuts in Human Services, an agency already said to be underfunded and understaffed.

Shumlin.NewsdumpWell, there’s a sequel to the rescission newsdump. All affected agencies are supposed to submit their proposed cuts by December 5. Hey, what do you know — it’s a Friday!

This should ensure that news about specific cuts will leak out slowly. Or, will perhaps be dumped all at once in a news release issued around 5 p.m. Friday.

It’s also worth noting that the administration gave its agencies less than one business week to make these tough decisions. Its call was issued on Thanksgiving Eve, which meant that the work couldn’t commence in earnest until Monday, December 1.

But wait, you might be thinking. Didn’t the Administration decide not to pursue immediate cuts?

That’s right. Rather than risk a confrontation with the Legislature, it opted to hold off on rescissions until January.

However, the December 5 deadline remains in effect. So state agencies are being rushed into critical budget decisions, even though no action will be taken until more than a month later.

Curious. Methinks the administration might get an early start on those cuts, despite its abnegation of unilateral action.

As for the second newsdump… the Governor announced Wednesday that he would unveil the proposed benefits offered by a single-payer health care system by mid-December, and that his financing plan — the real bone of contention — will come out on December 29 or 30.

What, does he have plans for New Year’s Eve? Or would that be just too damn obvious?

Well, I guess it was too damn obvious anyway. Paul Heintz:

…he swears he’s not trying to bury the news in the lull of the holiday season.

“That’s exactly why I wanted to give you the date now,” Shumlin said during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters at Burlington’s Hotel Vermont. “Because I didn’t want to wake up on December 31 and [read], ‘It was a late-night news dump.'”

So I guess I’m helping out by labeling it a newsdump well before New Year’s Eve Morning. Wouldn’t want to spoil the last cappucino of 2014. (Or maybe I shouldn’t assume he drinks Gucci coffee. Folger’s?)

He claims that he wants to get the plan out early to “get it to the legislators before they’re sworn in.” But the specificity, to use a grand old Watergate word, is a little strange. His team, he says, “is working really hard to get this together.” A task involving that much intensive work with a bunch of people would seem, by its nature, to be somewhat open-ended. And the Governor has particularly avoided deadlines in the health care reform process because so many have been flouted in the past.

And yet he can predict, with certainty, that it will all come together on the 29th or 30th.

Somehow I doubt an extra week or so, including a long holiday weekend, will make a whole lot of difference for lawmakers. If the early release isn’t a newsdump, it will certainly have the effect of one: limiting coverage and blunting immediate reaction to the plan, allowing the Administration to prepare counter-arguments and perhaps even refine the plan before it’s formally submitted.

To me, it looks like a newsdump, walks like a newsdump, and quacks like a newsdump.

A moment of sanity in the corner office

Apparently the Governor realized it wasn’t a good idea to begin a new biennium with an inter-branch standoff over budget cuts.

The Shumlin administration has decided not to unilaterally cut $6.7 million from the current fiscal year’s budget. The rescissions instead will be included in the executive branch’s budget adjustment proposal to the Legislature in January.

Can we hear a brief rendition of Fanfare For A Single Kazoo?

[Administration Secretary Jeb] Spaulding said the administration agreed to wait on rescissions, but will “slow down” spending in the meantime.

“(G)etting into a fight with the Legislature on this would be counterproductive,” he said in an email.

In the words of some great philosopher somewhere, “Well, DUHHHHH.”

The Administration, for those just joining us, had claimed the authority to cut current-year spending by up to one percent without legislative approval. And, as reported in this space (and, regrettably, nowhere else), the outlined cuts were very heavy on Human Services. Which probably would have caused even more conflict with the Legislature, as it has done on previous occasions when the Administration sought to balance the budget on the backs of the working poor.

Lawmakers weren’t convinced by the Administration’s legal rationale for unilateral action, even though Attorney General Bill Sorrell rubber-stamped it. Legislative Council had a different view:

In a draft memo drafted Nov. 24, Legislative Council attorney Rebecca Wasserman said the rescissions already approved by the Joint Fiscal Committee in August preclude the administration from making unilateral cuts now.

I hate to say it, but I’ll take Wasserman’s word over Sorrell’s. Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon somehow managed to make a big concession sound like a veiled threat:

“We do believe we have the authority based on the consultation with the AG’s office,” Reardon said. “But for the sake of working with the Legislature, we decided we will propose all of the budget adjustments in January.”

“For the sake of working with the Legislature,” meaning, “We let ’em have this one, so they’d better play ball come January.”

Perhaps I read too much into this. And perhaps, in a more cooperative atmosphere, the massive Human Services cuts will be mitigated. We can but hope.

About those rescissions, pt. 2: The poor will always be with you

It seems as though the Shumlin Administration’s cowardly pre-Thanksgiving newsdump was successful: our political media dutifully reported the topline — $17 million in cuts, including $6.7 million to be implemented without legislative approval.

But nobody, at least not yet, has reported any of the details. And there are some noteworthy details. Some entire agencies seem to be getting off scot-free, while others are taking it in the shorts.

Well, one in particular. And if you guessed “Agency of Human Services,” you’d be a cynical observer of Vermont politics.

And you’d be correct.

Human Services is expected to provide almost two-thirds of the total rescissions — more than $10 million.

It must be noted that Human Services is the single biggest agency, so it could be expected to take a hit. But it’s not anywhere near that big. This seems to be a rerun of past Administration efforts to cut human-services spending; I’m reminded in particular of its ill-fated effort to slash the Earned Income Tax Credit. This time, instead of calling for specific (and politically unpopular) cuts, the Administration is dumping the mess into AHS Interim Secretary Harry Chen’s lap.

Gee. Supposedly Shumlin thinks Chen is doing a bang-up job, and would love to have him stay in the post. This is a damn funny way of showing his appreciation.

Most other state agencies come in for some cuts, but nothing close to AHS scale. And there are a couple of agencies that seem to have avoided the budget ax altogether.

Number-one on that list is the Agency of Transportation. It’s one of the bigger state agencies, and it won’t be getting any smaller; it’s being held harmless.

At the same time, the Governor’s hit list gets awfully picayune in spots. The Vermont Humanities Council is being docked $9,000. The Lieutenant Governor’s office is getting nicked by $2,900. And the Vermont Symphony Orchestra is in line to lose $2,000.

I find it hard to believe that Human Services can slash $10 million but Transportation can’t spare a dime. I also find it hard to believe that a process so fine-grained that it could find two grand in savings from classical music couldn’t identify any cuts at all in concrete and asphalt.

My own budgetary chops are pretty limited, so I can’t assess each and every cut. These are a few highlights, obvious even to the untrained eye. It is to be hoped that someone in the media is taking a closer look at the rescission list. There’s definitely some funny stuff going on.

One final note. It’s been widely reported that there’s a potential conflict between Administration and Legislature over the former’s claim that it can cut $6.7 million without lawmakers’ approval. What hasn’t been reported is that the Administration wants the other cuts — the ones requiring legislative approval — to go into effect before the new session begins.

This seems like a pretty devious way to undermine the legislature’s budget-writing authority. It’s yet another potential flashpoint between the two branches of government. And yet another sign that the Governor has already stopped his post-election “listening and learning.” He’s back to taking pre-emptive action and trying to box the legislature into a corner.