The drift

The legislature is about a quarter of the way through its four-month session, and Governor Shumlin’s proposals are falling like tin ducks in a shooting gallery. Lake Champlain tax plan? Dead. Education plan? “A place to start the conversation.” Payroll tax to close the Medicaid gap? Flatlining.

Not that this is terribly surprising; the governor exited the 2014 election with significantly diminished political capital. So much so that when Shumlin unveiled his proposals last month, the question wasn’t so much whether they would pass or not, as whether he meant them seriously in the first place or knew from the start that they were doomed.

(Evidence for the latter: an education plan that did nothing to provide near-term property tax relief. That, at least, was a non-starter.)

Not sure what else he could have done after his near-defeat. He could have taken the George W. Bush approach, pressing on regardless of his mandate-free victory, but that’s not who he is. Shumlin likes to talk bold and act incrementally.

Now he’s added deference to incrementalism, and it’s up to the Legislature to generate some vision. The consensus-seeking, conflict-avoidant Legislature. I’m not holding my breath.

I do expect our lawmakers to do some good work; I just don’t expect them to produce anything truly impactful. And we face a bunch of issues that call for some strong, progressive action.

Take, for example, the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, chaired by one of the good people of the Statehouse, David Deen. The committee has already ditched Shumlin’s proposed tax hikes to help pay for Lake Champlain cleanup. The fertilizer fee’s down the tubes because the farmers didn’t like it; the fee for stormwater runoff from developed sites is as good as dead because it would be “difficult to implement.”

Instead, Deen’s panel is looking at a smorgasbord of tax and fee hikes — more numerous than Shumlin’s plan, and less directly tied to the sources of Champlain pollution. The governor’s plan was simpler and made more sense. The committee’s approach will open the door to Republican charges that the Dems are just raising taxes wherever they can. Deen is considering at least four separate tax or fee increases instead of Shumlin’s two.

More important than the specifics of the Champlain plan, though, is the strong signal it sends: Lawmakers — even those who are solid on policy — are loath to take risks. Or, as Deen himself put it:

“There are some very strong voices in the hall opposed to it. And we are reacting to political reality around here,” the Westminster Democrat said Friday.

This session is looking like a big fat lost opportunity given that this is an off-year, and new programs or reforms would have a year and a half to take root before lawmakers have to run for re-election. Ya think next year’s gonna be any better?

This is a typical duck-and-cover reaction, but it plays right into the Republicans’ hands. Let’s say Phil Scott runs for Governor, as everybody believes he’s going to do. He’s strongly positioned as a centrist willing to consider all ideas. And he’s a nice guy to boot.

If voters have a choice between the Democrats’ fear-based centrist incrementalism with a bias toward inaction and Phil Scott’s natural centrist incrementalism with a bias toward inaction, which one do you think they’re going to choose?

I hope I’m wrong about this. It’s still early in the session, and there’s more than enough time to come up with at least one piece of solid small-p progressivism. But I’m not holding my breath.

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