BRISTOL — Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, has been able to keep a close eye on the state’s financial health as a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
His scrutiny and input into the state budget will become even greater now that he has been appointed to the Vermont Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee, or JFC. The JFC is a panel made up of 10 lawmakers (five House members and five senators) charged with, among other things, overseeing the fiscal responsibilities of the Legislature when the General Assembly is not in session.
“I am very excited,” Sharpe said of his assignment, confirmed last month by Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown.
“It is an opportunity I have sought for a while.”
Sharpe becomes the first Addison County lawmakers to sit on the JFC in around two decades. The heads of the Legislature’s money committees automatically receive seats on the JFC. Sharpe received one of the at-large appointments.
The JFC met last week to get an update on the state’s finances, and the news was not very uplifting, Sharpe noted. Though he added that the difficult financial state was based on current best estimates, which could change.
Officials from the state’s Joint Fiscal Office — which provides administrative support to the JFC — presented the latest information on a potential $75 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year 2013 general fund budget that lawmakers will begin crafting when they return to Montpelier in January. And that shortfall projection, Sharpe noted, assumes a level-funded spending plan and does not take into account extraordinary expenses associated with Tropical Storm Irene-related repairs to state and local road and bridges.
Current estimates place Irene-related damage to state infrastructure at between $150 million and $250 million, according to Sharpe, while damage to local roads and bridges is being placed at around $140 million. State officials are trying to secure federal aid to soften that financial hit from Irene.
Sharpe noted the Legislature is becoming accustomed to addressing budget shortfalls. Lawmakers confronted what was a $170 million budget gap at this time last year, he noted.
“It is serious,” Sharpe said of this year’s problem. “But our revenue picture is improving slightly.”
The primary culprit in the general fund budget shortfall this time around is Medicaid reimbursement, according to Sharpe.
“Ironically, because we are doing better than the rest of the country in our recovery from the great recession, we therefore get less of a Medicaid match, so we will get fewer dollars from the federal government for each (health care) dollar that we’ve spent,” he said.
This lower Medicaid reimbursement level comes at the same time that more Vermonters are qualifying for the program, thereby creating an added financial crunch, Sharpe said. Total estimated shortfall in Medicaid revenues for Vermont in fiscal year 2013 is $40 million, according to Sharpe.
He stressed the budget numbers could change — for better, or for worse — by the time the Legislature convenes early next year.
“It’s important to remember that these are just estimates,” Sharpe said. “It is tough to rely on these numbers too heavily; they are our office’s best estimates.”
Sharpe said he is looking forward to his new assignment. And he will continue to serve on House Ways and Means.
“It will mean more hours and responsibilities, but I am ready to take those on,” Sharpe said. “It is a challenge I am looking forward to. I wake up every day thinking about how I can help Vermont continue to be great and serve Vermonters, particularly working Vermonters. It has been a tough few years for Vermonters, and I want to do well by them.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.