Getting Ready for the Session: The Big Issues

Getting Ready for the Session: The Big Issues

It's only November, but Vermont lawmakers are already gearing up for January's upcoming session.
MONTPELIER - It's only November, but Vermont lawmakers are already gearing up for January's upcoming session.

They met for a unique pre-session briefing Wednesday to get the ball rolling.

Entering the new session, the state is already in the hole for Fiscal Year 2015 starting in July. The state estimates a $72 million budget gap in advance of the session. This time last year, the gap was $67 million. The year before was $50 million.

"Clearly we're going to have some challenges around the budget," said Rep. Shap Smith, D-Vt. House Speaker.

Lawmakers are now thinking about where to make cuts. Smith says the Agency of Human Services takes up the largest portion of the budget. The agency includes programs like food stamps, fuel assistance, health care and other services for Vermont families.

"The medicaid pressures are ones we're going to have to look at very closely," said Smith on what programs may be part of the cuts.

A lower federal match rate means the state is putting more money into Medicaid.

"I think we're going to have to take a look at some of these programs we've back-filled. Some programs that are relatively new," said Don Turner, R-House Minority Leader.

Naturally, health care came up during Wednesday's session and will be a pressing issue in the upcoming session.

Commissioner of Vermont Health Connect Mark Larson addressed the legislature, taking their questions and updating them on the roll-out of the health exchange.

"Many Vermonters have been frustrated," he said, referring to the technology glitches with the website. "I share their frustration."

Speaker Smith says his constituents have come to him, also frustrated. "They liked the plans," he said. "They liked the cost, and they're disappointed that they're not able to get into the plans."

Turner brought up concerns about the three-month extension to keep current plans.

"We need to make sure that people in January, in May can get their prescriptions. That's what's concerning us and we want to see that that happens," he said. He wants the state to extend the implementation of the mandate until the end of 2014.

As for whether people will be able to actually pay for their plans by the end of the year; Larson says he doesn't know.

"We won't add that update to the live website until we're fully confident it's ready for Vermonters to use," he said.

Governor Shumlin did not make an appearance Wednesday, but his Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding did. He said while he can't speak for the governor, he believes his main issues for next year's session are opiate abuse, early education funding, broadband internet for all Vermonters, and balancing the budget.
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