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Vt. Lawmakers Told to Expect Tighter Budgets

Prison and Mental Health Costs Expected to Rise in Years to Come

Montpelier — The growing numbers of pre-trial detainees in Vermont prisons and paying sheriffs to monitor mentally ill patients in hospital emergency rooms are among the many budget pressures facing Vermont state government.

That word came Wednesday as officials with the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin briefed lawmakers on the budget challenges they’re expected to face when they return in January.

Vermont’s official legislative session begins in early January and usually runs until May, but the Statehouse begins to get busy in November and December as committees do work to prepare. Wednesday was an unusual occasion in which the entire 150-member House and 30-member Senate were invited to hear about the state’s finances and its efforts to overhaul its health care system.

“My hope is that after today it will help people sort of orient themselves for what we face next year,” House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, said during introductory remarks.

Much of Wednesday’s session was devoted to the fiscal picture for 2014.

The first order of business is adjusting the budget for the current fiscal year in light of pressures that have appeared or increased since the fiscal year began July 1. Finance and Management Commission James Reardon listed several new or increased expenses that will require lawmakers to come up with an estimated — Reardon emphasized it was only an estimate — $13.5 million more needed between now and next June 30, in addition to total spending of more than $5 billion approved by lawmakers last spring.

Lawmakers set $12 million aside in the budget passed last spring to make up for expected cuts in various types of federal funding. Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said in an interview he expected some or all of that money would be used for the budget adjustment.

Among the items on Reardon’s list was $3.5 million for emergency housing services for people on public assistance, designed to stem rising homelessness in the state. The list also included $1.55 million for the Corrections Department, which has been forced to send more convicts out of state under contracts with private prisons as a growing number of in-state prison beds go to house people being held as they await trial, and $780,000 for the Department of Mental Health. Since flooding from Tropical Storm Irene forced the closure of the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury in 2011, many people in mental health crises who would have been taken there instead have gone to emergency rooms — sometimes for days as they await longer-term placements — at Vermont’s other hospitals, Reardon said. The extra money is needed in large part to pay sheriffs’ deputies who provide security in such situations.

In addition to the mid-year budget adjustment, lawmakers also got a forecast of the difficulties expected in crafting a budget for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1. Current forecasts point to a $72 million gap between expected revenues during that budget year and demands for government spending.

And they got an update on efforts to fix up the problem-plagued website of Vermont Health Connect, the state exchange being set up as a health insurance marketplace under the federal Affordable Care Act.