BRATTLEBORO—On the first day of spring, Windham County’s state legislators took their breakfast with a big cup of worry.
At the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce’s legislative breakfast March 20, local lawmakers offered a variety of updates from the 2017 session. But they also spent a lot of time fretting about the deep federal budget cuts proposed by President Donald Trump.
The negative effect of those cuts, lawmakers said, would be felt in health care, transportation, education, and other sectors.
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, took a swipe at Trump’s campaign slogan while noting that the Brattleboro Retreat — one of the county’s biggest employers — would be among the institutions feeling the pain.
“The reality is, the only thing this president has made great again is Saturday Night Live,” Mrowicki said. “And I don’t think that’s helpful for the business community.”
Trump has described his proposed budget for federal fiscal year 2018 — which begins Oct. 1 of this year — as a “blueprint to make America great again.” It boosts defense spending and immigration enforcement, but it slashes funding for many domestic programs.
The spending plan now goes to Congress, so Trump’s budget is only a preliminary blueprint. But in Vermont — where roughly a third of the state budget is federally funded — officials are panicking about the depth of the proposed cuts.
Additionally, a federal health care plan proposed by Republicans could cost Vermont an estimated $200 million annually starting in 2019.
The March 20 legislative meeting was held in a conference room at the Retreat, and health care was on the minds of many.
“We’re concerned about what happens with the [federal] budget, because the current proposal out there for health care is going to hurt the Retreat, it’s going to hurt the hospitals,” Mrowicki said. “It’s going to hurt many people in this room.”
Cutting Medicaid spending, Mrowicki argued, is counterproductive in the long run.
“We know that, when you cover people early, their expenses down the road for medical care are less.” he said.
Added Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro: “[Trump] is going to ask the poorest of the poor to pay for something they can ill afford.”
Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, is a longtime local school board member and has similar worries for education funding.
She’s concerned about state Agency of Education employees whose positions are federally funded. According to documents produced by an agency spokeswoman, 75 positions in fiscal year 2018 — about 44 percent of the agency’s workforce — are federally funded.
Long, a member of the House Education Committee, also said the proposed federal budget targets special education and the 21st Century grant program, which funds programming outside regular school hours.
The question, Long said, is “how are we going to mitigate the biggest challenges that we’re facing around the cuts to those students who are in the most vulnerable situations in the state.”
Off the tracks?
Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, and a nine-year member of the House Transportation Committee, said any significant Amtrak cuts will have an impact on the Southeastern Vermont business community.
“Amtrak, I think, has been really important to the economy in Brattleboro,” Burke said. “People come up from New York, they come to Brattleboro, they can walk to the Latchis [Theatre], they can walk around and go to restaurants.”
She also noted ongoing efforts to extend Amtrak service between Vermont and Montreal — an effort that could be derailed by funding reductions.
Overall, Burke said, “more than half of our [transportation] funding comes from the federal government.”
As for what the future might hold under the Trump administration, “we really don’t know,” Burke said.
“There are so many uncertainties,” she said. “I think we just have to react to what’s happening when it’s happening, and be aware.”
Reacting to Congress’ budget decisions is difficult for a state Legislature that adjourns in May. That’s why state lawmakers already are preparing for the possibility of a special fall session if the federal budget cuts come to fruition.
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, commended the staff of Vermont’s congressional delegation for keeping state legislative leaders up to date on the federal budget situation. She added that the Senate is “not waiting to see what happens. We’re being as proactive as we can.”
But Balint didn’t sound hopeful.
“No matter how it comes down the pike, it’s not going to be good news for Vermont, because we are federal-dollar dependent,” she said.