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Vermont state budget crunch time approaches; public asked for input


MONTPELIER, Vermont — Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration is asking for the public's ideas on what the state's spending priorities should be as officials prepare what is expected to be a very tight budget for the next fiscal year.

With little appetite for tax increases, Shumlin has asked agency and department heads to request no increases in their budget proposals for him to incorporate into his annual funding request to lawmakers, which he's due to make in January.

Meanwhile, demand for Medicaid spending is up sharply, the Department for Children and Families needs more staff to deal with rising caseloads of child abuse and neglect, and there's a clamor for better security around courthouses and other public buildings following the fatal shooting of a DCF social worker in August.

Another big source of upward budget pressure is substance abuse treatment. Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen said Monday Vermont had about 1,700 people in treatment for opiate addiction two years ago; the number now is nearly 6,000, with about 500 on waiting lists around the state.

Administration Secretary Justin Johnson on Monday announced two Internet-based seminars are being set up to take public input on Nov. 23. The human services budget — covering areas including Medicaid, mental health, corrections and others — will be the topic of the first webinar from 1 to 3 p.m. The rest of state government will be the focus from 4 to 6 p.m.

Figures from the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office, which advises lawmakers on financial matters, estimate that revenues will grow by $49.1 million in fiscal 2017, which begins July 1. Upward budget pressures in sight so far total about $117.4 million.

"I don't think there's a silver bullet," Cohen said. "It's a very painful thing because what it's forcing us to do — it's a positive thing to look at all of our programs. The painful part is to set priorities about what is it that we're not going to do any longer. Or what we going to do less of."

The biggest driver of increased costs is Medicaid, which has seen about 20,000 people added to its roles since implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act. Cohen said more than 200,000 Vermonters — about a third of the state's population — now are enrolled in the government-backed health insurance program.

When lawmakers return in January, they'll face action on a budget adjustment bill for the current fiscal year before tackling the 2017 budget. Medicaid will see demand for increased cost this year of about $37 million, over a previously existing budget of about $1.6 billion.

More than $10 million of the increase is due to a calendar quirk — which administration officials did not mention to lawmakers as they were preparing the current budget — in which there effectively is a 53rd week of needed coverage in the current fiscal year.

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