By Associated Press - Tuesday, August 12, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Dozens of advocates for Vermont human services programs and some of the people they serve came to the Statehouse on Tuesday to tell lawmakers to avoid budget cuts that would hurt low-income residents.

Tracy Thresher of Barre, whose severe autism requires him to use a computerized communication device, told the Joint Fiscal Committee the 30 hours of direct aid he receives each week from Washington County Mental Health staff members is vital to his daily living and to his ability to communicate.

Of such services, he said, “I absolutely believe it is our right as human beings.”

The committee met for the second of three days. On Monday, the panel heard from the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin, which has requested $31 million in cuts to meet a recent lowering of the state’s revenue forecast for 2013.

It took testimony from the public on Tuesday, and was expected to make final decisions on the cuts Wednesday. State law allows the Joint Fiscal Committee to make such decisions when the full Legislature, which usually meets between January and May, is out of session.

Some advocates for groups serving mentally ill and low-income Vermonters said the process is moving too fast.

“We spent hours creating these policies” in committees during the legislative session, said Dale Hackett of Barre, who described himself as a consumer advocate. “How long did it take to come up with that 4 percent cut (requested by Shumlin)? Two hours?”

After the hearing broke up, Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford and chair of both the Joint Fiscal and House Appropriations committees, said it’s important that whatever cuts the committee selects, they be put in place soon.

“The longer we put off making decisions, the deeper the cuts will have to be,” because they’ll be spread out over a shorter portion of the fiscal year that began last month, Heath said.

Nicole LeBlanc of the service consumer group Green Mountain Self Advocates asked why the emphasis was on service recipients making sacrifices, rather than taxpayers being asking to pay more. “What values are we using to guide are decision-making?” she asked.

Shumlin, a Democrat, has said repeatedly he does not want to raise taxes, which he argues are high enough in Vermont.

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