- Associated Press - Monday, March 23, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Low-income state residents are expected to get less help paying for heat next winter, and fewer developmentally disabled residents will be able to enroll in state programs, under a budget approved by a House committee on Monday.

Those are among the results of what is widely regarded as a tough fiscal 2016 general fund budget that won unanimous approval from the House Appropriations Committee. It was the first time in more than a decade the panel decided on a spending plan by an 11-0 bipartisan vote, said longtime committee member Rep. Robert Helm, R-Castleton.

The $1.475 billion general fund budget is just part of state spending that totals about $5.5 billion. It doesn’t include the statewide education fund for public schools, the transportation fund or federal funding the state distributes through Medicaid and other programs.

But because it pays for the largest range of state programs - everything from prisons to a share of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s annual outlay - the general fund budget usually gets the most attention. The committee’s version still must clear the full House, which is expected to vote on it later this week; then it goes to the Senate before final details are worked out by a conference committee of three House and three Senate members.

Democratic committee chairwoman Rep. Mitzi Johnson, whose district is in the Lake Champlain islands, said the budget “is the biggest policy document that we put out as a Legislature.”

“It’s where we prioritize resources to things that are important for Vermonters,” she said. “So it’s a struggle.”

The Appropriations Committee faced a tough task when lawmakers convened in early January: trying to close a projected $94 million budget gap. It got tougher later that month, when two economists who forecast state revenues downgraded those expected in fiscal 2016 by $18 million.

Overall, the committee’s version of the budget calls for the roughly $113 million gap to be closed with $53 million in cuts, $35 million in new taxes, $24 million in one-time expenditures and nearly $2 million from renting state prison beds to the U.S. Marshals Service for federal inmates.

The budget gives Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin many of the cuts he sought when he delivered his annual budget address to lawmakers in January, but it softens some of them. For instance, Shumlin called for reducing the number of public safety answering points that handle 911 calls from four to two, but the committee said it would fund the four for a quarter of the year and then ask municipalities to chip in.

While the four Republicans on the committee supported the budget, party leader Rep. Don Turner, of Milton, said there was likely to be widespread opposition in his minority caucus.

Advocates for low-income Vermont residents greeted the budget with a combination of bitterness and a sense it could have been worse.

Cuts to low-income heating assistance and a welfare-to-work program will hit hard, said Karen Lafayette, of the Vermont Low-Income Advocacy Council. The budget, she said, “really doesn’t invest in moving people out of poverty.”

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