- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont residents gathered at sites around the state on Monday for a public budget hearing that drew low turnout but heartfelt testimonies from organizations either praising Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration or requesting more money.

Max Barrows, of Green Mountain Self-Advocacy, praised the funding the developmental disabilities-focused organization would be receiving from the budget.

Karen Schwartz, executive director of the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, said that the budget was better for developmental services agencies than in years past. While the agencies lost $2.23 million as part of a mid-year budget revision last month, Shumlin’s proposed budget includes $10.5 million after taking into account increased caseload.

Shumlin is proposing a state spending plan to eliminate a $70 million budget gap. The budget included no cuts to state programs, and also includes funding increases for transportation and anti-poverty initiatives and $10 million in new spending to counter the state’s burgeoning opiate-abuse crisis.

The $1.44 billion budget the governor proposed would be a 3.56 percent spending increase over 2014 and would take effect July 1.

The public hearing on Monday conducted by the House and Senate appropriations committees gave Vermonters one more and possibly final chance to weigh in on the proposed budget. Shumlin’s plan needs to be approved by the Legislature.

Both Karen Topper, a state coordinator with Green Mountain Self-Advocates, and Sandy Gaffney, of Vermont Workers’ Center, said that word about the hearing did not get out to as many people as usual.

“Regular people are not aware of it,” Gaffney said.

Topper said that it took her “longer than usual” to find out when the hearing would be.

“When there’s usually a large turnout, it’s because advocacy organizations find out about it and then they go out and mobilize the grassroots to come here,” Topper said.

Schwartz said that holding budget forums last fall before Shumlin’s administration drafted the budget might have allowed an outlet for people to express their thoughts on the proposals.