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Three key ideas in Douglas' budget

02/13/03 12:00AM By John McClaughry
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When a governor unveils a budget, there will ordinarily only be a few items that have the potential of effecting important changes over time. Three items in Governor Douglas' budget may loom large 10 or 20 years from now.

The first is Douglas' proposed Department of Innovation and Information. Creating a new department in and of itself doesn't promise much, but putting high-powered people to work, with the governor's active support, to completely revamp state government's use of technology does. Vermont has long been behind the power curve in harnessing modern technology. Douglas' initiative promises a new 21st century state government: efficient, cost-effective, and user friendly.

Second is Douglas' proposal for a thorough citizen-based review of "how government can function better, utilize technological advances and improve our systems and services." Amazingly, this kind of systematic review has not been undertaken in Vermont since the Commission to Study State Government, which effected considerable modernization from its creation in 1957 to the completion of its work in 1962. It may take several years for such an effort to bear fruit, but it's long overdue.

Finally, there was a passing mention of two important proposals that can dramatically improve personal responsibility and wellness among lower income Vermonters. The budget would double the very low level of funding for the Individual Development Account program launched a year ago. The IDA program allows lower income Vermonters to save tax free, with a government match, to accumulate funds to buy their own home or start their own business.

The 2002 legislature set in motion a Medicaid reform plan, principally authored by Representative Tom Koch. In his summary accompanying the budget message, Douglas put his weight behind one of its major features: a Medical Savings Account plan for children with expanded Medicaid coverage. Like the IDA, the Medicaid MSA will give recipients responsibility for managing their own wellness, instead of expecting the government to make and pay for choices. Although Texas and Indiana have looked at a Medicaid MSA plan, no state has yet put one into operation. Properly run, this Douglas initiative can point the way to a more general health care reform, and get national attention.

Each of these ideas for Vermont's future merits bipartisan support. It will be interesting to see if they get it. All in all, the first Douglas budget is a very creditable performance, especially for a chief executive with a brand new team, facing difficult economic prospects, and not having much time to get its act together before taking center stage.

This is John McClaughry - thanks for listening.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization.
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