Daily Archives: October 21, 2014

Wow! Scott Milne puts an ad on TV!

He must have thoroughly scoured the sofa cushions, because he’s finally taken to the airwaves with a paid 30-second ad. Either that, or he spent some time on Ancestry.com searching for more Milnes and Boieses to fund his (very) late-blooming media effort. This is his first ad buy since the August primary, when he put out a single ad to help him fend off the “challenge” of Emily Peyton and Dan Feliciano.

Anyway, he managed to pay whatever it cost to produce the thing, plus $78,825 on ad time. And shockingly, he didn’t spend most of his money on WCAX:

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 5.44.30 PM

As for the ad itself, well, it’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s a rehash of Milne’s attacks on Governor Shumlin delivered in a downcast voice by a female narrator — how many days he’s been out of state, slow economy, high taxes, Vermont Health Connect — with creepy music in the background.

Then, as it always does, the music shifts to a happy, mellow tune and the camera focuses on Our Hero, Scott Milne, standing outside somewhere on a sunny day, promising to cap property taxes, enact new incentives for education, and end “Peter Shumlin’s failed health care experiment.”

And then, just before the video cuts away, this strange lopsided smirk spreads across his face:

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 5.40.05 PM

Eeeesh. Looks like a bad used car salesman.

Shoulda tightened up the edit just a bit, boys.

The ad ends with a slo-mo video of Milne in profile with the suddenly-upbeat female narrator saying, “Scott Milne for Governor. Focused on solutions… full-time.”

Just a touch of snide in her voice on the “full-time.”

So yeah, typical stuff. Probably came out of some Generic Political Ad Generator from some Generic Political Production Company.

Nothing wrong with it. It’s just utterly predictable.

Well, except for the smirk.


‘Tis the season for hyping politically convenient survey results

This time, it’s a survey from the completely unbiased HAHAHAHA CNBC comparing the business climates of the 50 states. Here’s a shocker: Vermont didn’t do very well, coming in 42nd in the nation.

One clue that there might be something funky with this survey is the fact that all the Northeastern states were clustered at the bottom: New York 40, New Jersey 43, Pennsylvania 44, Maine 45, Connecticut 46, and Rhode Island dead last.

The only Northeastern states to get out of the doldrums were New Hampshire, tied with Arkansas for 30th, and that business-hating socialist hotbed of Massachusetts at 25.

Right off the bat, I’ve got to believe there’s some sort of built-in regional bias. And with Massachusetts the star performer of the region, it’s hard to see how much of an impact Vermont’s liberal tax-spend-and-regulate environment would have; we can’t be that much worse than Massachusetts. Indeed, the rankings are such a mixed bag that it’s hard to identify useful trends: some factors favor robust social investment (infrastructure, education), some have a clear geographic bias (availability of transportation), some favor large states, some small.

Of course, that didn’t stop VTGOP Chair “Super Dave” Sunderland from glomming onto the survey like Paula Deen on a stick of butter.

Well, there’s the VTGOP analysis, in its full 140-character glory. What say we take a closer look at this survey?

Vermont’s rankings tended toward the extremes. There were ten categories in all. We were near the top in Quality of Life and Education. We were in the middle on a few things (including the oft-criticized Business Friendliness, #31), but right near the bottom on Cost of Doing Business, Cost of Living, Infrastructure & Transportation, and Workforce.

All right, so we’ll take credit for Quality of Life and the excellent education system that the Republicans would like to undercut (gubernatorial candidate Scott MIlne calls for as much as a 30% slash in public school funding). But let’s see why we fare so poorly in those four major categories. CNBC lists the criteria in each category, although there’s no explanation of how the criteria are evaluated and weighted, so it’s only of limited utility.

Cost of doing business. Criteria include state and local tax burden (income, property, business, gasoline), utility costs, wage rates, and rental costs for commercial space.

Why I don't feel sorry for the overburdened rich. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Why I don’t feel sorry for the overburdened rich. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Regarding taxes, first of all I’d note the absence of sales tax, which hits middle- and lower-class residents hardest. For included taxes, CNBC used the official tax rates. However, some of our tax rates are artificially high compared to taxes actually paid. This is especially true for top income earners. Vermont’s official top income tax rate is 8.95%, which is on the high side; but because of generous rules on eligible income, top earners pay an effective rate of only 5.2%. And when you combine all taxes, the top 20% pay a smaller share than any other group.

As for utility costs, yes, they’re relatively high. That’s partly because of Vermont’s relatively aggressive adoption of renewables, but also because of our relative lack of home-grown sources. We don’t have any of our own coal, oil, or natural gas.

On wage rates, well, I’d just as soon have better wage rates than some “business-friendly” states like Texas and Utah and Nebraska. Ditto rental costs: I’m glad we put reasonable limits on commercial development. It’s part of the price we pay to keep our “Quality of Life” score high. (If, like Scott Milne, you’d like to see Vermont look more like the West Lebanon, NH commercial strip, then you’re entitled to your opinion. I guess.)

Cost of Living. A fairly straightforward category. Some of the low ranking is due to social choices (energy and development, see above) and some is inherent in being a small, rural, cold place (food, heat).

Infrastructure & Transportation. This category is a little funky. “Quality of roads and bridges” is only a small part of it. CNBC’s top criteria:

We measure the vitality of each state’s transportation system by the value of goods shipped by air, waterways, roads and rail. We look at the availability of air travel in each state, the quality of the roads and bridges, the time it takes to commute to work and the supply of safe drinking water.

Well, hell. Vermont’s never going to score well on most of that. We don’t produce a lot of goods, so we don’t transport much. We don’t have much of a transportation infrastructure because we’re so small: only a couple freeways, a lot of winding two-lane roads, very little rail or air. And our commute time is long because we’re rural.

Workforce. This is another funky one. Along with education level of employees and number of available workers (we struggle on that one), CNBC puts a lot of stock in right-to-work laws and toothless labor unions. Again, if that makes us a bad place to do business, it’s a trade-off I’m more than willing to make.

There’s one more crucial piece you need to understand about the CNBC ranking. Not every category gets equal weight. In fact, the most heavily weighted category, Cost of Doing Business, is worth 450 points, while Education is worth only 150 points and Cost of Living only 50.

CNBC’s weighting system pushes Vermont farther down the rankings because we generally score worse on the heavily-weighted categories than on others.

Some of the weighting is reasonable, and some of it is standard fiscal-conservative dogma. Education, in particular, seems to be very important to a lot of Vermont businesses, and yet it carries little weight in CNBC’s rankings.

But then, it’s depressingly normal for the business world to focus on the immediate and short-term, instead of the long-term. You’d think that businesses would be smart enough to realize that a little short-term pain (enough tax revenue to support infrastructure, education, and social services) is more than justified by the longer-term gain of doing business in a strong, stable environment rich in social capital.

The survey is somewhat useful if you look beyond the mere rankings and use it to evaluate your state’s strengths and weaknesses. And if you make thoughtful decisions on which factors are worth improving, and which things you’d like to keep the way they are. Even if they don’t absolutely maximize the business climate.


Shocker: Realtor-commissioned survey finds property taxes too high

In the category of Not At All Motivated By Self-Interest, No Sirree, comes an opinion poll from Vermont Realtors on the subject of property taxes.

Surprise: they’re too high.

According to the survey, 76 percent of respondents say that property taxes are too high. The poll also demonstrates that this is a non-partisan issue, with two-thirds of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 85 percent of Republicans sharing the belief that property taxes are too high.

The first thought with stuff like this is: Well, of course. It fits the Realtors’ preconceived political narrative. But the methodology — fully explained in the news release, thank you — is reasonably solid. And there’s no doubt that a lot of Vermonters think the property tax system is out of whack.

But let’s look a bit deeper. The key question in the survey was “Do you believe property taxes are too high, too low, or about right for the services you receive?”

When you start out asking taxpayers if their taxes are too high, you’ve invited a positive response. How many people are going to volunteer that their taxes are too low?

And the consensus rapidly dissolves when people were asked what to do about it.

 According to the poll, 49 percent of respondents say there is a great need [to reform the way public schools are funded], while 26 percent believe that there is “some” need. Just nine percent say there is little need and only eight percent see no need.

To which VR President Donna Cusson noted, “The intensity on the need for change is striking.”

Actually, I kinda thought the opposite. 76% say their property taxes are too high, but only 49% say there is a “great need” for change. That’s a lot of people complaining about property taxes but lukewarm on change. Probably because, as everybody knows, the devil is in the details. And, as everybody knows, it we lessen the property tax burden, we either have to cut spending on our high-performing and well-loved public schools OR we have to raise taxes somewhere else.

Here's another reason to reform the system. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Here’s another reason to reform the system. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

In its press release, VR described the results of two questions. There were other questions, and VR is not releasing those numbers. It says it “has shared the results of the survey directly with candidates for office in an effort to initiate a dialogue about the need for property tax reform…”

So… it wants to tell candidates what the voters think, but it doesn’t want to let the voters know? That’s a bit curious.

I suspect that some of the other survey results were perhaps less forceful. If, say, respondents were asked how best to fix the system, I’m guessing there wouldn’t be any real consensus. Because all the alternatives are unpalatable. And that’s why it’s been so difficult for the Legislature to tackle the issue.

One other oddity: The VR release is dated September 29. At the time, apparently, it got zero attention in the media. This morning, VTDigger posted the release in its ever-popular “Press Releases” section, which is where I noticed it.

A modest entreaty to our conservation groups

Okay, here I go again, disappointing some of my lefty friends. My request:

Please don’t pursue the Burlington College land. Let the sale to a developer go through, and find another use for the $7 million you’d need to block the sale.

The news kinda got lost in the IBM/GlobalFoundries shuffle and resultant flood of Republican petulance, but Burlington College announced Monday that it would sell most of its 32-acre lakefront property to a real estate developer, who would build a mix of affordable, senior, and market-rate housing. The College desperately needs the money to get out of debt and give itself a fighting chance at survival.

The deal includes a 60-day window for preservation groups to match the purchase price and keep the land from being developed.

And I’m begging you, please don’t.

Look, I realize this is Vermont and we’re going to be inundated by earnest calls to Keep This Land Pristine and Save It For Our Children. But sorry, I’m not on board.

Vermont needs more housing. A recent report by the Champlain Housing Trust and Housing Vermont shows that a lack of housing stock is driving purchase prices and rental rates upward, making housing unaffordable for many. The high price of housing is also a drag on the economy: the report says the housing crunch hurts businesses trying to recruit workers into Vermont. Which we need, to kickstart our stagnant economy and bring more kids into our under-populated schools.

And for the sake of the environment, we especially need new housing in our cities and towns. We don’t need more sprawl, particularly in Chittenden County, which already suffers from the effects of sprawl. Infill housing is good for our environmental footprint.

Every chance for a new development brings a value judgment. Do we want to preserve the land, or do we think the benefits of a development outweigh the preservation interest?

The best answer depends on the specifics of an individual project. But bear in mind: Every time we opt for preservation, we lose property taxes, we keep housing prices high, we make it harder for people to move to Vermont, and we encourage sprawl.

So please. Go ahead and raise $7 million. But use it for something that’s a clear environmental plus, instead of the usual kneejerk reaction against a project that would actually do some good things.

Gee, Phil, are you running for something?

Bit of a dick move by professional Nice Guy, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott today. After IBM announced it was dumping its semiconductor business to GlobalFoundries, Governor Shumlin held a quick news conference.

Behind you, Peter!

Behind you, Peter!

And there, over Shumlin’s right shoulder, was Phil Scott, well within camera range.

I thought it was a little odd that the Governor would give him the spotlight, seeing as how he endorsed Dean Corren and all. Well, that endorsement was a long time ago, and the Governor hasn’t visibly done anything to expand on it. No joint appearances, no further kind words. No criticism of top Democrats like, say, John Campbell, who’ve gone out of their way to back Scott.

Well, how did Nice Guy repay the favor?

By subtly, but clearly, criticizing Shumlin Administration policy. VTDigger:

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said Monday morning at the news conference that the sale clears the slate to change the way Vermont does business with large companies.

He stopped short of saying that the state could have done anything to prevent IBM’s exit, but he took the opportunity to say it can do more to work with GlobalFoundries.

“We need to establish policies that make the business climate more conductive to growth for large employers such as IBM,” Scott said.

Mighty white of him to stop short of blaming Shumlin for IBM’s departure. After all, he could have rolled out that old “Shumlin called an IBM lobbyist a liar eight years ago” canard. Instead, he slipped the knife, ever so slowly and ever so politely, into Shumlin’s back. After all, “make the business climate more conducive to growth” is a favored Republican dog whistle. And, as we all know, Vermont’s business climate had nothing whatsoever to do with IBM’s departure.

Next time, put Phil in the back of the room. Or leave him out in the car with the doors locked and the windows cracked. Wouldn’t want him to overheat.