Tag Archives: LIHEAP

Ending homelessness while fostering homelessness?

On Monday, Governor Shumlin announced a series of initiatives to end child and family homelessness in Vermont by the year 2020. I didn’t really give it a thought, honestly; these dates and deadlines are announced with much fanfare; but as with sports prognostications, nobody ever checks up on the outcome. Besides, Shumlin will almost certainly not be Governor when his promise comes due.

The strategy does appear well-crafted and will most likely do some good, although it’s short on resources and long on administrative rejiggering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with administrative rejiggering; it’s a good step. It just won’t build any housing.) And it’s an issue that needs addressing: 

Among families with children, homelessness is on the rise. According to annual data collected from school districts and supervisory unions by the Agency of Education, the number of homeless children in Vermont has risen 46 percent during the past five years, from 784 in 2010 to 1,145 in 2014.

So yeah, good move. But did anyone think to ask this seemingly obvious question?

How can you say you’re committed to ending family homelessness when you’re making major cuts to human services programs?

To my discredit, I didn’t think of it either. One of our white hat lobbyists raised the question in a hallway chat. (Since it wasn’t explicitly on the record, I won’t name the person. If s/he wants credit, please get in touch.)

The Governor’s budget proposed $22 million in cuts to the Agency of Human Services, including $6 million for LIHEAP and $1.7 million from Reach Up. Within the strictures of his antipathy toward raising taxes, he did a decent job of spreading the pain. But still: he wants to end family homelessness, but his budget would make it harder for poor families to keep home and hearth together. Seems a bit contradictory, no?

The white hat put it in terms of a tax hike on the poor. Technically it’s not, but it is a reduction in benefits they would have otherwise gotten. It’s less money, less assistance in their pockets. (Especially with the LIHEAP cut, which rests on the iffy proposition that fuel prices will continue to be low for the next year.)

In that sense, it is indeed a tax on poverty. And it does seem at odds with the Governor’s well-publicized, well-intentioned push to end family homelessness.

Advertisements

Stupid Tax and Budget Tricks

The Republicans often (constantly) accuse Gov. Shumlin and the Democrats of irresponsible governance — of taxing and spending without regard for the long term.

Well, pot, meet kettle.

Consideration of the tax and budget bills in the House has been marked by Republican gimmickry and short-term thinking. And it looks like we’re in for more next week.

A few examples.

First, House Minority Leader Don Turner’s deal with Speaker Shap Smith, delivering ten Republican votes in exchange for more money for Emergency 911 call centers and the Vermont Veterans’ Home. Thus ensuring the passage of a budget he claims to oppose, and fattening it by more than a million dollars.

Second, Rep. Paul Dame’s unaccountable vote for restoring full LIHEAP funding, in spite of the fact that he opposes all tax increases and wants even deeper spending cuts  — conveniently unspecified — than the Democrats proposed. Which means if we restored LIHEAP, we’d have to cut the money somewhere else — almost certainly in other human-services programs, since that’s the lion’s share of General Fund spending.

Third, Rep. Job Tate, a House freshman who was previously noted for handing out Life-Savers in honor of the Emergency 911 call center staffers whose positions he sought to maintain even while insisting on No New Taxes and More Cuts Elsewhere. Today he resorted to an old chestnut of Budget Theater: proposing a pay cut for lawmakers.

Who, as it is, make a mere pittance for their work. And because their pay is so minimal, the cut would have been minuscule compared to the budget gap. But hey, it would have sent a message, right? Share the pain, right? Yeah, thanks for participating, Mr. Tate.

And then we have Paul Dame, he of the pandering and hypocritical LIHEAP vote, proposing another cynical amendment. The tax bill includes a cap on itemized deductions equal to 2.5 times the standard deduction. Well, Mr. Dame touted an amendment to allow unlimited itemizations for people with incomes under $60,000 a year.

Never mind that pretty much everyone who earns less than $60,000 is taking the standard deduction. It’s virtually impossible to have an income that low and rack up enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile. It’s an empty gesture aimed at positioning Dame as a friend of the little guy, even as he would force massive cuts in human services programs if he had his way on taxation and budget-writing.

As for next week, one of the big items on the House agenda is the water bill, aimed at sparking cleanup efforts in Lake Champlain and other Vermont waters. The Republicans, natch, oppose any new taxes even while paying lip service to clean water. Indeed, they apparently favor new programs (not that they have any choice, since the EPA would come down on us hard like a criminal if we didn’t act), but want to get the funding from existing sources. Like, oh, maybe scraping the gold off the Statehouse dome and selling it to Cash4Gold.com, or searching the seat cushions for spare change.

Or, in Don Turner’s case, scrounging a little money from existing sources and using it “to leverage bonds.”

Bonds?

Oh, you mean debt?

I see. So Mr. Fiscal Responsibility wants Vermont to assume a pile of new debt — adding to our long-term fiscal issues — for the sake of avoiding any new taxes right now.

You know, during the House debate we’d occasionally hear a blast of honest, hard-core conservatism. One Representative basically said all those poors should get off their asses and go to work. At least that’s honest, if it’s also ignorant and mean-spirited. But Republicans trying to have it both ways? That’s just sickening.

Oh, those wily Republican budget hawks

So this just popped up on Ye Olde Facebooke:

Paul Dame hypocrite

Ahem. This would be the stout conservative Paul Dame who’s been Tweetbragging about his anti-tax votes in the House. And now he’s Facebragging about a vote that would add six million bucks to the budget. (Correction: I’ve been told it would have added three million, not six. I guess that makes Dame only 50% of the hypocrite I thought he was.)

Myself, I’m all for maintaining LIHEAP. It’s one of several budget cuts that will hit Vermont’s poor and working poor the hardest. But Paul Dame has no business bragging about a vote to increase spending.

This is part and parcel of the House Republicans’ two-faced game on the tax and budget bills. They’ve fought hard against tax increases and painted the Democrats as the tax-and-spend party, but they’ve also fought against many of the budget cuts proposed by Gov. Shumlin and House Dems. And, as reported earlier, House GOP leader Don Turner negotiated spending INCREASES in exchange for Republican votes on the big bills.

The long and winding (and circular) road

It’s been a very long week at the House Appropriations Committee, which has been trying to close the remaining $18 million or so in the budget gap for Fiscal Year 2016. In today’s session, members tried everything they could think of, and then some, to balance the budget while avoiding some of the “big uglies” — the proposed cuts that nobody wanted to make.

Shall I cut to the chase? After advancing through the five stages of grief, they ended up accepting pretty much the entire list, including $6 million from LIHEAP, $2 million from a Department of Children and Families weatherization program, a $1.6 million hit to Reach Up, a million-dollar cut for the Vermont Veterans Home, a reduction in state funds for Vermont PBS, and $817,000 from Vermont Interactive Television.

This list was dubbed a “wish list” by the committee — not because they wanted to cut the items, but precisely the opposite: their wish was to avoid having to cut these items that were put on the chopping block in Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal.

There were a couple of adjustments. As reported in my previous post, the committee adopted Rep. Maty Hooper’s plan to phase out the state prison at Windsor and devote some of the savings to re-entry programs aimed at reducing the inmate population and avoiding the export of more inmates to out-of-state prisons. And a $500,000 cut to the judiciary system was technically made a one-time cut, with the understanding that the system will reform itself in the coming year to generate equivalent savings in future years.

All the “wish list” cuts adopted by Appropriations added up to a little over $14 million in savings, mainly from the Agency of Human Services. Which is almost inevitable; the committee was looking for cuts only in General Fund programs, which leaves out a significant share of state spending. Most General Fund spending is in Human Services, so that’s where the cuts had to come from.

Mind you, nothing was finally decided today. Some committee members still hope to restore some of the cuts, but in order to do so, they’ll have to find equivalent cuts elsewhere. (Appropriations has no authority to increase revenues; it only oversees the spending of state funds.) As they put it, “buy back” some cuts. That seems unlikely, however; at day’s end, the committee was still $1.93 million short of a balanced budget. So in order to restore any of today’s cuts, they’d have to find more than $2 million in savings elsewhere.

Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson looking for cuts of any size, large or small.

Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson looking for cuts of any size, large or small.

And they tried really hard today. Most of the committee’s Democratic majority did not want to impose Shumlin’s cuts. Committee Chair Mitzi Johnson repeatedly invited members to come up with their own substitutes. And they all looked high and low, with almost no success.

At one point, Johnson asked members to split up into “unlike pairs” to discuss the “wish list” and other possible cuts. That session lasted almost an hour, and ended with several members making cellphone calls in pursuit of information on possible savings. Items of as little as a few thousand dollars were offered.

In the end, they wound up back at the “wish list.” In the absence of any alternatives, and with guidance from House leadership that only a certain amount of new revenue would be available, the Appropriations Committee bit the bullet and tentatively approved all the cuts on the “wish list.” It also approved a couple million in additional savings that weren’t on the “wish list.”

Watching all this made me appreciate how hard it is to find savings in the budget. For all the conservatives’ cries of waste and abuse and lavish spending, Republican members had no more success than Democrats in finding fat to trim. In the end, committee members of all stripes were reluctantly united behind a budget proposal that will bring painful cuts to many areas of government. There were no easy calls.

This is an early step in the process. The budget has to get through the full House, where trouble may loom in the form of a Republican/liberal coalition that opposes the budget for very different reasons. If it gets through the House, it’ll have to make its way through the Senate’s often weird and unpredictable gauntlet. But the Appropriations Committee tried and tried and tried; and in the end, it couldn’t find more palatable alternatives to Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal.