Kill the Task Force

Vermont politicians are addicted to studies. At the drop of a hat, or a tough issue at least, they’ll seek the shelter of the nearest consultant or think tank, or assemble their own commission, committee, task force, or (the Nuclear Option of Political Procrastination) Blue Ribbon Panel.

All of ’em, I say, should be dubbed “Hogans” in honor of Vermont’s Greatest Living Centrist, Con Hogan, who could always be counted on to provide a nice bipartisan sheen to any study effort.

The appointed experts scurry away to do their work, and then return with the fruits of their labors.

Which are immediately shoved in a desk drawer, never to be seen again.

Can you think of a single time when a Hogan actually moved the needle on an issue? In rare cases, a Hogan confirms conventional wisdom and prudent politics; then it can get a little traction. This may turn out to be the case with the RAND study on legalizing marijuana: it promises a rich revenue stream that may prove irresistible to lawmakers.

But if a Hogan’s conclusions are inconvenient or flout conventional wisdom, fugeddaboudit.

The most recent case in point: There were not one, not two, but three separate studies of the Department for Children and Families last year. All three came to very similar conclusions: In order to beef up child protection, DCF needs “better training, more social workers, more transparency and a stronger focus on opiate addiction’s impact on family dynamics.”

The legislature, not content with three studies, appointed its own special committee. Its highest-profile proposals: hang the threat of felony conviction and prison time over the heads of social workers.

That muffled “thud” you hear? Those three studies landing in the nearest recycle bin.

There are many examples; here’s a classic. One of the highest-profile Hogans of recent years was the Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission, whose recommendations would have created a fairer tax system, mainly by changing the rules on taxable income in a way that would have raised the effective tax rate for top earners. Who, I remind you, pay far less than their fair share.

But its findings would have ruffled innumerable feathers. So, as VTDigger’s Anne Galloway reported in early 2011:

…state leaders have relegated the Commission’s report to the back burner. The commission’s 18 months of research, efforts to gather a full range of testimony and public debates on policy options didn’t warrant a footnote in the governor’s budget address.

That would be newly-elected Governor Peter Shumlin, who placed a higher priority on not raising [certain] taxes than on creating a fairer system.

Not that I place all the blame on him; it seemed like everyone in the legislature treated the Commission’s report like a snake in the underwear drawer.

Oh well, it wasn’t their 18 months of hard work being flushed down the drain.

Sadly, this outcome is the rule, not the exception. Most of the time, a Hogan is nothing more than a way to kick the can down the road while looking sober and responsible: “We need more information before we can decide this contentious issue.”

Trouble is, the more contentious the issue, the less likely it is that a Hogan Report will actually change anyone’s mind. People like their preconceived notions, and are loath to abandon them just because of some ivory tower “evidence.”

But perhaps my thoughts are themselves too contentious to address head-on. Perhaps what we need is a Hogan Commission — a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Blue Ribbon Task Forces, to determine the efficacy of Hogans once and for all. Only then can we make an informed decision on whether to abandon or constrain the creation of future Hogans.

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One thought on “Kill the Task Force

  1. Cynthia Browning

    I am one of several legislators who have been advocating for implementation of several of the Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission recommendations since they came out. I consider it a great missed opportunity, almost a tragedy, that at least shifting from Taxable Income to Adjusted Gross Income was not done. My bill from last session H.353 would have done this, along with property tax reform. If we had done this several years ago we would have a simpler, more effective, and more equitable tax system, and the volatility of the revenue stream might even be less.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

    Reply

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