Gov. Peter Shumlin may be heading toward a budgetary crisis because of the potential shortfall of money anticipated from the federal government for cleanup after Tropical Storm Irene. He will make the crisis worse unless he is straightforward with the public and takes full responsibility for his actions.
In recent days Shumlin has been saying that the Federal Emergency Management Agency may not come through with $90 million for construction of a state hospital for the mentally ill and for refurbishment of the state office complex in Waterbury. That is a sum the Legislature figured into its budget.
Shumlin now blames FEMA. “The head person from FEMA made us all kinds of promises,” Shumlin said. “We’ve got emails saying we’re going to get this.”
But the emails do not appear to contain the kind of promises Shumlin was describing. Instead, they pointedly refrain from making promises the agency would not be able to keep, saying FEMA action would depend on federal regulations and on the level of compensation received by the state from insurance.
The emails show Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding pressing FEMA for assurances that the full funding would be forthcoming, asking if the federal officials saw any “showstoppers” that would get in the way. The FEMA official said he did not foresee any showstoppers and that he expected FEMA would be able to assist “in some way.”
Unless there were other assurances that so far have not surfaced, Shumlin had better stop blaming FEMA for breaking promises. Indeed, Spaulding appears to understand that the state may be on thin ice in blaming FEMA. He said no one in the administration believed there were iron-clad assurances attached to the FEMA money.
Some legislators see things differently. Randy Brock, who is running for governor, is a Republican senator. “Those of us in the Legislature who voted on this bill did so based on the assurances we received from the administration that this FEMA money would be there,” Brock said.
“We had a belief that this money would be there,” said Sen. Dick Sears, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It is likely that Vermonters will be forgiving if Shumlin engaged in a bit of wishful thinking in the wake of the devastating blow dealt to the state by Irene. The state was in crisis mode, and Shumlin was juggling a host of problems, not the least of which was the decimated mental health program. The state needed that FEMA money, but there is reason to believe members of the Legislature understood that the full sum was never guaranteed. It’s hard to know how the idea took hold that FEMA had promised it, unless it originated in Shumlin’s need to blame someone else for his dashed hopes.
Vermonters will probably be less forgiving if Shumlin tries to evade responsibility for decisions that were his. For him the worst-case scenario would be if he has to say: “Sorry, Vermonters, we let our hopes get ahead of us, and money we were expecting from FEMA won’t be there. We need an extra $90 million in a special, temporary Irene surtax.”
Vermonters have been eager to pitch in after Irene, and if it comes to it, making up for FEMA’s shortfall would probably be seen as part of the Irene cleanup.
Even with the budget problems, the administration plans to press ahead with its revamped mental health program, including new facilities, and that’s a good thing. Mental health for struggling Vermonters is more important than buildings in Waterbury.
If we allow ourselves to hope, we can hope that FEMA eventually comes through and the whole problem is avoided. Until that happens, Shumlin will have to face up to tough realities and face the contingencies not foreseen by wishful thinking.
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