The Shumlin conundrum

(Say it five times fast.)

Governor Shumlin delivered brief remarks to the House and Senate Democratic caucuses on Saturday. His message, basically: we’ve got big problems to deal with and no money, so let’s dig in and get going!

I can imagine him in a past existence, being a life coach for Roman gladiators.

He appeared in his Airwolf jacket, fresh off a helicopter (or, as he put it, “chopper,” what a man) tour of storm-damaged Vermont. Which caused much speculation on Press Row about who paid for the overflight.

The Shumlin Tour. Not exactly as pictured.

The Shumlin Tour. Not exactly as pictured.

Said speculation didn’t make it to their reports, and the stunt had its desired effect: lots of coverage on the teevee news, with the governor looking both manly and concerned.

Naturally he didn’t have time to change out of his flight gear before the caucuses, hahaha. Really, anybody weighing less than four bills could change clothes in the back of that Yukon SUV he rides around in.

He did use his chopper tour to make a pitch for his renewable energy agenda — “we didn’t use to see storms like this,” but now we got global warming. And then he turned to a series of talking points we can expect to hear again and again in the new year, all designed to diminish expectations and/or dash hopes.

He didn’t use Phil Scott’s phrase “affordability agenda,” but the substance seemed awfully similar. Vermonters are frustrated that their purchasing power is stagnant while costs (and property taxes) are rising.  State spending has to be reined in.

When he took office, he said, economists were forecasting a post-Recession return to 5% annual growth in the Northeast. Turns out, it’s more like 3%, and is likely to stay there for quite some time. But state spending was built on that 5% projection, and that’s led us to our current fiscal mess.

Stringfellow Hawke explains it all. (As the hand of VPR's Peter Hirschfeld gamely tries to keep a microphone within range.)

Stringfellow Hawke explains it all. (As the hand of VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld gamely tries to keep a microphone within range.)

The $100 million shortfall in next year’s budget, he said, is real. We’ve used up the federal recovery money and the one-time funds to balance past budgets. Now, “we’ve got to make tough choices.” We’ve got to bring down growth in state spending to match that seemingly endless 3% growth rate. Thus, he said, “anyone asking for more money had better think twice.”

He made a progressive plaint about the growing income gap between the very rich and the rest of us. He did not, however, connect the dots between that phenomenon and Vermont’s underperforming income tax revenues.

And he certainly did not connect the dots to a quirk in our current tax system that has an official top tax rate of 8.95%, which seems quite high — but the rate that top earners actually pay is not 8.95%, but 5.2%. Furthermore, if you add up all state and local taxes, it turns out that the top 20% pay a lower share of their income than the other 80%, and the top 1% pay the lowest share of them all. (Figures from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy.)

When I connect those dots, I think we ought to resurrect a bill that almost passed the House two years ago. It would have shifted more of the tax burden upward, and given modest tax cuts to middle and lower-tier working Vermonters. That bill died a sudden death because of Shumlin’s steadfast opposition.

So when he starts talking about income inequality, he needs to talk about our tax policy as well. Because these days, that’s where the money is. And our top earners are doing extremely well, thank you very much. They can pay their share.

Shumlin also rolled out his school funding argument: Our schools would perform better for less money if there was some kind of consolidation. Because studies show that very small class sizes are just as harmful to achievement as very large class sizes. So we’ve got to embiggen our schools, not to save money (although we would), but for the sake of the children.

Awww.

Surprisingly, there was no mention of single payer health care — or the slightly watered-down “universal health care” — except for a brief mention, in his Cavalcade of Calamities, of unacceptably fast-rising health care costs.

Okay, some realities of my own. I accept the notion that slow growth means an extremely tight state budget, and that we cannot tax our way out of it. We should tweak the tax system to make it more equitable, but that’s not going to bring in much money. We’ll need to make government more efficient if we want to preserve the level of services we’ve come to expect.

I believe that the number-one thing Governor Shumlin needs to do to restore his standing with voters is to re-establish his reputation for good governance. The policies, and I say this as a devout liberal with strong policy positions, are kind of secondary.

Shumlin gained a strong managerial reputation during the Irene recovery. He pretty much blew it in his second term, with the continuing difficulties of Vermont Health Connect, the problems in the Agency of Human Services, and all the budget shortfalls. If he can make state government work effectively, he’ll win back a lot of voters.

And this will be his biggest administrative challenge, not Irene. Authentic crises are difficult, but they get the adrenalin flowing, and everybody puts aside their differences and pitches in. Maintaining the day-to-day operation of a big bureaucracy is harder. It’s an unending slog. It challenges established procedures, and if there’s one thing we Vermonters love, it’s doing things the way we’ve always done them.

As a liberal, I expect to be disappointed repeatedly by Shumlin in the next two years. Clearly, between the realities of the fiscal situation and his own political instincts, there’s going to be a lot of governing from the center. Or even center-right. But if he can govern effectively… if he can actually create new efficiencies, saving money while maintaining services… he will restore his political reputation.

Is he up to that challenge? Two years ago I would have said a resounding “Yes.” Now, I’m not so sure. Flight jacket notwithstanding.

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