By Angelo Lynn
Gov. Phil Scott’s line-in-the-sand mantra not to raise a single tax or a single fee has made politics in Vermont’s capital more strident, divisive and unruly. The irony is that the governor himself is mild-mannered, affable, pragmatic and someone who seems to get along with almost everyone.
But in this session he has become an ideologue who cleaves so closely to this one overriding concern that he has become unreasonable and closeminded.
It has also led, for the first time in recent memory, to Saturday’s adjournment of the Legislature with no agreement with the governor on the budget or a tax plan.
For those who don’t follow state politics closely, that’s a shocker.
Consider that Gov. Shumlin proposed aggressive changes to the state’s health care system, dealt with the destructive aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene and the tailwinds of the Great Recession, and still had budget agreements and a tax plan worked out before the session ended for six consecutive years. Former governors Douglas, Dean and Snelling also faced tough issues and budgets, yet they all had been able to reach a spending and tax plan before adjournment.
And Gov. Scott is leading the state during a time of relative prosperity. The state economy is strong, tax revenue surpluses continue to surprise, and the major conflict is something both parties largely agree on: getting a handle on school finances and right-sizing schools so they can be run more cost-effectively.
With so many things coming up roses, what makes it so tough that Gov. Scott and the Legislature can’t agree on a budget or a tax plan?
Only Gov. Scott’s pledge not to raise a single tax or fee, and his team’s failure to work with the Legislature in a more timely and forthright manner.
Consider that in the past two sessions, Gov. Scott and his team have dropped bombshells on the Legislature in the last two to three weeks of the session. Last year it was the governor’s proposal to mandate a statewide teachers’ health insurance plan. This year it was his five-year education finance plan that would supposedly save $300 million at the end of its fifth year and cut 1,000 teachers and staff.
The problem this year is not only that the Scott administration proposed its plan two weeks before adjournment, but that it skirted the legislative process, resulting in a proposal that was not well vetted. A draft report by the Joint Fiscal Office early last week described the assumptions made by the governor’s team as “questionable” and said the five-year plan, “contains some major technical errors” that cut the projected savings by $100 million to $160 million, according to VTDigger.
The errors, the JFO wrote in notes prepared for lawmakers, included “double counting” special education savings, “not filling the reserves, overstating healthcare savings, and seemingly reducing tax rates rather than holding them constant.”
Jason Gibbs, the governor’s chief of staff, initially blasted the JFO for playing politics to undermine the governor’s plan, but later in the week the governor’s office quietly adjusted its projections much closer to the JFO’s estimate.
As we’ve said before, tossing bombshells into the Legislature’s lap at the eleventh hour is no way to lead. If the governor wants to significantly shift how the state is conducting the way it funds education, it should propose a plan at the start of the session (just as Gov. Shumlin led on health care reform) and let the legislative committees thoroughly debate and research the details of the plan and react accordingly.
Scott has also let his no-new-taxes pledge cloud his judgment on smaller issues as well. An example is a bill to put an assessment on opioid manufacturers that would generate millions of dollars that would be used in Vermont to help fund drug prevention and addiction-treatment programs. The Democrats proposed and passed the fee, reasoning that the opioid manufacturers were partly responsible for the addiction crisis and should help fund some of the treatment from their profits. This was not a tax on the average Vermont resident and not on Vermont businesses, but on opioid manufacturers. Still, Gov. Scott was unmoved, saying this past Thursday: “It’s a tax and fee as far as I’m concerned, and if it (the bill) arrives with a tax, I’ll veto it.”
That’s not only not smart, it’s governing based on an inflexible position regardless of the reasonableness of the initiative. It is the opposite of the pragmatic approach we thought would be Gov. Scott’s trademark.
Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison Independent in Middlebury, a sister paper of the Mountain Times.