Tag Archives: Reach Up

The Governor gives the Republicans a ready-made campaign slogan

Hey, remember last Friday, when Governor Shumlin had to walk back a budget-cutting proposal he’d made less than 24 hours earlier?

Yeah, embarrassing and sad. I mean, how many people looked over the text of his budget address and didn’t realize that “cutting benefits to poor pregnant women” might cause a kerfuffle? Even if the cuts are counterbalanced by new benefits, that’s the worst possible topline for a sales pitch.

Well, maybe second worst to “confiscating crutches from crippled kids,” or possibly “Scrooge was right the first time,” but I digress.

Shumlin rolled out his kneecap-the-preggers initiative on Thursday, and took it back during a Friday appearance on VPR’s “Vermont Edition.” And just in case the abandonment itself wasn’t bad enough, he went and said this. For real.

“I don’t want to use this as a way to cost pregnant women more money,” the governor said on the program. “I said to my team this morning, ‘Listen there’s plenty of ways to save money in the budget. Go back to the Legislature and give them alternatives of other ways to make savings.’”

Wait, what?

“There’s plenty of ways to save money in the budget”?????????

?????????????

This, from a guy in his sixth year as governor, whose tenure has been marked by penny-pinching and an absolute refusal to raise “broad-based taxes” (as he himself defines the term)?

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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.

Bureaucracy to the rescue

It’s a story languishing in the shade of Governor Shumlin’s single-payer surrender, but on Thursday the Department for Children and Families released a third report on its effectiveness. This report pretty much echoed the first two, as VTDigger’s Laura Krantz reports:

The new report grouped its findings into five categories. The key items include better training, more social workers, more transparency and a stronger focus on opiate addiction’s impact on family dynamics.

DCF head Ken Schatz said the similar conclusions of the three reports was an affirmation that “We have a good road map now to go forward.”

Well, that’s nice, but is that sufficient justification for three separate reports plus a legislative review that’s still pending? How much money did we spend on all this investigation? Why didn’t we just commission one really good and thorough report instead of a bunch? Were DCF investigations on sale at Costco?

Beyond that, two things in Krantz’ account jumped out at me. First was the fact that the DCF news conference was “attended by only three reporters.”

That’s sad, and bad. DCF was one of the year’s highest-profile issues in state government. And, to be callous about it, the story was more clickbaity than most because it involved the deaths of two toddlers. Also, the presser was held not in Montpelier, but in Williston — a hop and a skip away for Burlington-based media outlets. Like the Free Press, which I’ve been told was not in attendance. (So far, its website does not provide any coverage of the event.)

If true, that’s pretty shameful, especially for a media outlet that has beaten the drum for greater transparency at DCF. They want transparency, but they’re not going to advance the cause by, oh, sending a reporter to a significant event. Nice.

The other thing that jumped out at me was this. The “road map” that Schatz referred to included a call for “more front-line workers [and] lower case loads.”

In response, Schatz and his boss, interim Human Services Secretary Harry Chen announced that DCF would hire ten more staffers.

Social workers, right? New troops to bring down the case loads, yes?

Er, no.

They include five management positions in the economic services division, two assistant attorneys general to help district offices with child protection cases and the family services division: an assistant district director in St. Albans, a assistant for the centralized call intake unit and a policy specialist.

By my count, that’s six middle management types, two prosecutors to help with cases that have gotten so far out of hand they’re headed for the courts, and two other functionaries, neither of which are on the front lines.

Bureaucracy to the rescue! Our troops are having trouble in the trenches, but never fear — we’re beefing up the staff at headquarters.

Maybe there are excellent reasons for these particular hires, but at a time when AHS is under heavy pressure to make deep cuts, it kinda leaves me scratching my head a little.

Speaking of tight budgets, you might wonder where they’re getting the money for these positions. The not entirely convincing answer is “through anticipated savings from the state’s Reach Up program, which helps poor families.”

Hmm. At the presser, DCF officials released some downright scary numbers on how their case loads have increased over the past year. And we’ve all been told over and over again that the sluggish economic recovery, with almost all its bounty going to the top one percent, is putting the squeeze on working Vermonters. But they’re confident they can save money on Reach Up?

They’re certainly more knowledgeable than me, but I have trouble seeing it.