Same song, different verse

Hey, who switched the teleprompter to Español?

Hey, who switched the teleprompter to Español?

Reactions to the Governor’s budget address…

First, I hope the Republicans are happy. Last week they complained about a lack of attention to some major issues. Today they got a whopping hour and fifteen minutes. Be careful what you wish for.

This speech followed Shumlin’s usual pattern. There’s a whole lot of incrementalism — small, inexpensive approaches to big challenges — and, to spice things up, a handful of bigger proposals almost certain to go nowhere. It strikes many observers as a deliberate tactic: offer an unpalatable solution, and force the legislature to find an alternative. Example from a previous year: his plan for a major cut to the Earned Income Tax Credit.

I’ll give him credit, he’s very good at incrementalism. He finds modest improvements that don’t cost much, if anything. In today’s speech, he was constantly talking of leveraging federal funds, private-sector participation, and partnerships with entities of all sorts. A classic example: his plan to offer “motivated high school seniors” a free two-year Associates’ Degree in engineering technology “with no additional cost to the Education Fund.”

The plan involves the state Agency of Education and participating employers identifying students, and leveraging existing programs plus employer contributions to get them free tuition and a summer internship if they stay and work in Vermont after graduation.

It’s classic Shumlin. It sounds good, it will actually help some people, it’s cheap, and it can be effective as far as it goes.

But it doesn’t touch on the underlying problems: high college costs and stagnant earnings for all but the very wealthy. Even if the incremental stuff works, it seems like small potatoes for those of us who vote Democratic.

How big is the budget gap? It's soooooo big.

How big is the budget gap? It’s soooooo big.

Then there’s the other thing we get: the “big idea” that probably won’t go anywhere. I could mention a few; the double ban on teacher strikes and contract impositions, giving power to the state school board to close schools that fail to meet spending or achievement targets, the payroll tax increase to fund better Medicaid reimbursement.

Indeed, his entire education package seems designed for rejection. For one thing, it seems to do nothing to immediately mitigate rising property taxes. That’ll be lawmakers’ top priority, after last year’s election.

Shumlin’s broader reforms are an odd mix of distant and scary. Neither the teachers’ unions nor the school boards are likely to accede quietly to a plan that will strip them of their ultimate bargaining chips. The idea of eliminating “contradictory incentives” like the small schools grant may be good ideas, but they’ll be tough to support for lawmakers with small school in their districts.

Finally, the idea of Agency of Education “evaluation teams” going into every school to measure achievement and spending performance — with those who fail to meet benchmarks in line for state funding cuts or even closure — is DOA. It’s mandatory consolidation and top-down control via carrot and stick, rather than direct mandate. Kinda the worst of both worlds; no immediate impact, and a whole lot of state interference (as it will be perceived) in local decision-making.

He calls it a “partnership,” but one partner has the ultimate power.

If you think I’m too gloomy on Shumlin’s prospects, just take a look at this reaction statement from House Speaker Shap Smith:

…the Governor acknowledged Vermonters’ concerns about the unsustainable cost of health care, burdensome property tax increases, and the need to clean up our waterways. …I look forward to working with the Administration to make Vermont the best possibly place to work and live, and one that provides opportunity for all Vermonters.

He applauds the Governor for addressing the big issues — but not a peep about the Governor’s proposals. I expect lawmakers to consider Shumlin’s ideas, but he won’t get priority over others’ ideas.

This is all part of the game, as it has been since Shumlin took office. It’ll be even more so after an election that was largely a personal rebuke of the Governor, not the Democrats.

His budget message was a starting point. From here on, it’s a matter of top lawmakers devising proposals of their own that they can convince Shumlin to support.

Multimedia note: if the photos seem a bit blurry, it’s because they’re screengrabs from the Vermont PBS livestream. Workin’ from home today. 

1 thought on “Same song, different verse

  1. odum

    The education-bargaining thing is interesting, and nobody is recalling the discussions on it during last year’s South Burlington strike. The union was very interested in binding arbitration, and leery of combining it with a strike ban without actually closing the door on it. I think something will come of that, as the iron seems to be hot, and the lines/sides are less clear than you think. We’ll see..


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