It has been an honor serving in the Vermont State House for the past six years, and a privilege working to make our state an even better place to live. Although the 2016 session didn't generate many news-grabbing headlines, those of us in the General Assembly did get a lot accomplished on behalf of the people of Vermont. I am running again this year so I can continue to serve Brattleboro's residents and further strengthen our great state.
From a budgetary standpoint, during the last session we held true to our Vermont values by supporting working families, protecting the vulnerable and the environment, and investing in education and economic development. We did so by allocating resources to stabilize existing programs while balancing the budget. We also took steps to insure the efficient use of our state's resources by establishing legislative oversight of state agency audit findings and reducing overtime expenditures.
To stabilize the foundation of our health care system, we shifted money from hospital rates to primary care. We addressed the fiscal challenges faced by our local designated agencies, which provide mental health counseling, developmental disability assistance and substance abuse services, and our home health agencies and agencies that support seniors by instituting a 2 percent increase that will become effective this September. Our first responders also will see an urgently needed increase in Medicaid reimbursement for ambulance services.
The budget we built for FY17 acknowledges the challenges our state faces such as increased caseloads of vulnerable children, senior citizens and people with developmental disabilities and addresses them in a fiscally responsible Vermont way. It also funds the programs that assure 97 percent of Vermonters have health care.
This past session, we strengthened child protection services, improved our judicial system's ability to respond to the demands created by the opioid epidemic and expanded the services offered to individuals struggling with addiction. To help working families avoid crisis, we increased the funding for parent child centers and childcare subsidies for the first time in many years. On the education front, we invested in future generations by increasing the appropriation to the Vermont State Colleges for scholarships.
We invested in ongoing improvements to our transportation infrastructure and maintained our commitment to water quality with funding for clean water programs. In addition, we dedicated $11.6 million for weatherization as well as contingency state funding for LIHEAP.
The FY17 budget reaffirms our commitment to economic development in rural Vermont by increasing the working lands grant and providing for a unified Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone. It also allocates start-up money for the Vermont Creative Network, which will foster growth in the arts sector.
The stability of teacher and state employee retirement funds have been an ongoing concern due to a long recession and underfunding during the 1990s. To put them on a more sustainable track, we put $100 million into retirement funds (more than the necessary contribution) and instituted a faster schedule for funding them, which will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in the future.
Notably, the budget builds a sound foundation for the future by not using any one time funds for ongoing needs. It funds stabilization reserves at their full statutory levels, while continuing to preserve our rainy day funds.
We fulfilled the obligations and needs of our state, understanding the trust that taxpayers place in us to invest their money wisely. While you may hear talk of spending increasing by 4.8 percent, that statistic reflects only a small percent, just one-quarter, of total spending and ignores the majority of the budget. When you look at the complete picture, we restrained growth to just 2.4 percent.
Over the last biennium, we tackled a long-standing discrepancy between the way we raise money and the way we spend it. Not only is this year's budget fully funded — it is a clear affirmation to taxpayers that Vermont's fiscal structure is strong and sustainable. Although upward pressures on state services and programs — like the rising cost of health care, our aged infrastructure, and the continued economic struggles of many Vermonters — are very real, Vermonters can be confident that we have managed the state's resources wisely and that we will receive valuable returns on our investments.
If you have any questions, thoughts or concerns, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be glad to hear from you.
Valerie Stuart represents Brattleboro, District 2-1 in the Vermont State House.