The heads of Vermont’s agencies and departments have been instructed to put together three-month budgets for fiscal 2021 and to do so budgeting at 23 percent of their fiscal 2020 level. If the economy continues to sink and if the percentage cut is maintained for the remainder of the fiscal year, the budget would represent an eight percent reduction in funding.

That’s not happened, at least in recent memory, which goes back for the better part of a century.

Sen. Jane Kitchel told fellow senators they had three options: “Hope for divine intervention and Congress will help the states. The second is you can raise revenues. And the third is you’re going to have very significant reductions in state government and state services or both.”

Ms. Kitchel is correct in identifying would could happen, and least on two of the three options. Where she’s overly optimistic is thinking there’s much room to raise revenues. At any level. There will be no appetite to raise taxes, or fees. With job losses soaring and businesses cratering, proposals to raise taxes would dig an already deep ditch deeper.

We continue to hold hope that Congress would understand the value of helping states and do what’s necessary, and soon. But even if that help materializes it’s unlikely all the budget gaps will be filled. Vermont legislators, and the administration, should plan for the worst.

There are three essential functions that need to be maintained, and at dependable levels: the first includes the functions of the Agency of Human Services, which means taking care of people who struggle to take care of themselves or their families; second, is the health care system, meaning people in all parts of the state need access to quality medical care, which means the viability of our hospitals, et al, needs to be maintained; third, is the strength of our educational system, preK-12 and the higher ed system. [A fourth, would be on the investment end of things, specifically the need to expand broadband to all areas of the state, something the pandemic has made apparent.]

It’s simply not possible to maintain existing budget levels for all that we have in place. But rather than provide all our programs with a little money, it’s much smarter and more beneficial to fund what matters to us most and to do it well. To do otherwise means our most important objectives will be weakened — perhaps dramatically — and all others will be bled dry. No one wins, everyone loses.

As obvious as that sounds, politically it’s a hard sell. For some legislators it’s easier to dole out a little to everyone, than it is to choose which programs are kept strong and which programs need to be put on the waiting list for another budget year.

What legislators are being asked to do is to put together a three-month budget in hopes that the federal government will rush to the rescue. But rather than have each department and each agency spread the pain evenly, they should take the exercise up a higher level and show us what spending [and state government] would look like if we had to choose between what’s truly essential and what is not. That’s the task true leadership demands.

A three-month budget could be the ideal vehicle for that objective. It could help focus a long over-due discussion as to how the state best protects what’s most essential to us. All states face the same hurdles. But how we take care of our own, the quality of the education we offer, and the health of Vermonters are three things that have always distinguished us among our national peers. Let’s take the challenge before us, and take it up a notch. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

by Emerson Lynn

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