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Shumlin testifies on state budget plan

April 14, 2011

NEAL P. GOSWAMI
Staff Writer
BENNINGTON — Democratic Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin testified before a congressional panel Thursday alongside Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, offering a disparate view on how states can close large budget gaps.

Shumlin, who took office January, told the House Oversight Committee that “Vermont is an excellent illustration of what states can do when we put aside partisan differences, tone down heated political rhetoric between labor and management and work together for the best interests of our citizens.”

The testimony was part of a hearing on state and municipal debt. The Shumlin administration and lawmakers in Montpelier are working to close a $176 million dollar budget gap. Walker and Wisconsin lawmakers, meanwhile, face a biennial deficit of $3.6 billion. Both states are taking steps to close the deficits but have taken different approaches to balancing their budgets.

In Wisconsin, Walker has pushed through a controversial budget plan that has drawn the ire of Democrats and prompted mass demonstrations in the state capital Madison because it limits the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The measure also requires public employees to pay more toward pension and health care costs.

Democrats in Wisconsin and around the country have sharply criticized Walker, saying he refused to negotiate with public employees on those matters and squashed the traditional rights of workers.

In Vermont, state government sought discourse and agreement with public employees, Shumlin told the committee.

“What is puzzling to me about the current debate about state budgets is that the focus has been not on bringing people together to solve common problems, like we have done in Vermont, but on division and blame,” Shumlin said. “I do not believe that those to blame for our current financial troubles are our law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other state employees whose services we take for granted. The notion that a state trooper making a middle-class living with health care benefits for her family, or a snow plow driver who works long hours in dangerous conditions and makes a decent but
modest wage, is responsible for this problem is simply false.”

Public employees in Vermont have also been asked to make some sacrifices, though, Shumlin said. The Vermont State Employees Association, through negotiation, agreed to 3 percent pay cut for two years, he said. Additionally, state employees and teachers agreed to raise their retirement age by two years, raise their retirement contribution and scale back retiree health benefits.

“All without lawsuits and without circumventing the collective bargaining process that has strengthened the middle-class in Vermont and America,” Shumlin said.

Walker, who was invited to testify by committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., defended his plan, saying it will ask public employees to  contribute 5.8 percent of their pay toward their pension and 12.6 percent of health insurance premiums. It will save local governments in Wisconsin more than $700 million, he said.

“Most workers outside of government would love our proposal,” he said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member who asked

Shumlin to testify, praised Shumlin’s approach to closing Vermont’s budget gap in his opening statement.

“(Shumlin) proposed spreading additional cuts across various state agencies, as well as raising additional revenue through select surcharges and assessments. In other words, he developed a plan to spread out and share sacrifices across the state,” Cummings said.

Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont President Matt Vinci, who attended today’s hearing, said public employees in Vermont understand the pressure on taxpayers. He also praised Shumlin’s approach.

“We truly appreciate the strong leadership and support that Gov. Shumlin has showed for public employees. He understands the work that they do fighting fires, patrolling our highways, teaching our children, responding to medical emergencies and maintaining our roads in Vermont,” Vinci said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

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