The Washington Post

Vermont Session Preview: A budget gap and a heroin crisis

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers his State of the State address in Montpelier, Vt., on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andy Duback)

As Vermont’s lawmakers reconvene, two issues loom large: a $70 million budget gap and a widespread drug-abuse crisis.

In his state of the state address on Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) started off positive, ticking off reasons why Vermont is “the best state in the Union,” but his speech quickly pivoted to its main focus: drug addiction and related crime. It’s a crisis that’s “complicated, controversial, and difficult to talk about,” he said in his remarks.

In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us. It threatens the safety that has always blessed our state. It is a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers, and too many Vermont families. It requires all of us to take action before the quality of life that we cherish so much is compromised.

The state has seen treatment for opiates increase 770 percent since 2000, he said.  Vermont now has “a full-blown heroin crisis” on its hands, he said, with an increase in treatment for the drug of over 250 percent since 2000. Heroin overdose deaths doubled last year from the year before, the governor said.

Shumlin’s proposal to address the problem includes millions in federal grants aimed at early prevention, $1.6 million in expanded treatment for residents in and out of jail, $10 million in federal money to help doctors and nurses to intervene with patients struggling with addiction, and another $2 million in aid to the poor intended to help stave off  “the hopelessness that can help drive drug habits,” his administration announced in a statement.

House and Senate leaders are reportedly planning on addressing the drugs epidemic, too, but other problems remain, including a $70 million budget shortfall. “A big challenge will be balancing the budget,” Rep. Jeff Wilson (D) told The Manchester Journal. “With the federal cutbacks, [how] will we do it? The question is how and what pain will have to be inflicted.”

The disappearance of federal funds means state lawmakers could face tough choices, Vermont Public Radio reports:

Legislators will be dealing with a $70 million budget shortfall.  Budget shortfalls are not new, but in previous years there has been stimulus funding and other state funds available to close those gaps. Now that money is gone and lawmakers are going to have to reduce spending. It may be a time when both the House and Senate Appropriations Committee take a look at the hundreds of programs in state government and say it’s time to put money into those that work and maybe eliminate those that don’t. The biggest part of the budget is for the Agency of Human Services. This could mean difficult decisions about programs that directly affect people and the quality of their lives. 

Economic development, taxes, health care and education are all competing for attention, too, various lawmakers told local papers. On the bright side, the session was off to a collaborative start, the Burlington Free Press reports:

Just hours into the 2014 legislative session Tuesday, a group of lawmakers settled disagreements over a campaign finance bill that has eluded passage for nearly a decade. Though the bill itself has been criticized as weak, its advancement was one of several signs that this legislative session is off to a running start.

By day’s end, lawmakers had made pledges of non-partisanship, heard promises from the governor to get to the bottom of problems with the new health insurance system and taken action on a few bills.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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