"Vermont has always produced a balanced budget, and this year will be no different," said State Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), the Vice-Chair of House Appropriations.
The committee is working off the $1.4 billion budget proposed by Governor Shumlin in January--5% higher than FY14's budget. Shumlin's budget would have raised $14 million with a new claims assessment tax on health insurance companies, but the House Ways and Means committee rejected that tax.
"We heard very clearly from insurance companies they'd just pass that on to the patients," said State Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset).
Left with a $14 million gap, lawmakers are figuring out where to cut. They have found over $5 million to cut so far, closing the gap to $9 million.
The committee has asked the Ways and Means committee to raise $4.4 million to help. One idea to raise the cash is to increase the tax on soda, cigarettes and nutritional supplements.
"I really want to see where we need the money before we're going to look to tax something," said Rep. Komline.
As for what could still be taken out of the budget--there's a running "wish list" of items.
"For the past few years, because the budget has been so tight, we've taken any place where there is new spending in the Governor's budget and also put that on the wish list," said Rep. Johnson. That list includes a 2% increase to medicaid, 2% increase to Vermont Public Television and 2% increase to higher education, among other things.
VPT's Board of Directors is currently under investigation for violating open meeting laws, but President John King hopes that won't influence the legislature's decision to increase funding.
"For 47 years now, the state has not only funded us but provided funding that makes it possible to serve all Vermonters, including children and especially low-income and under-served areas," said King. This would be the first increase in funding to VPT in four years.
The budget still has a long way to go. After House Appropriations makes its proposal, the full House will vote on it next week. Then it will go to Senate Appropriations for the same process. Usually, the Senate and House pass different versions, requiring a committee of conference made up of three senators and three representatives to form a compromised budget.
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