Daily Archives: February 19, 2015

Revenge of the Slummin’ Solon

Aww, just when I thought we were rid of the guy, his tainted legacy comes back to haunt us.

GalbraithI speak of the person formerly known as The Most Hated Man in the Senate, Peter Galbraith. In a building full of people convinced that their shit don’t stink, he stood out for his towering self-regard. He saw himself as a master lawmaker and deal-broker, when in fact he was an egotistical meddler always willing to block the process if he thought things could be done better.

By which I mean, of course, that things should be done the way he wanted them done.

One of his more notorious episodes is now making life more difficult for his former Senate colleagues, who now have to relitigate the aid-in-dying law because of a classic Galbraithian power play.

Back in the spring of 2013, after an exhaustive debate across multiple sessions, the state legislature was poised to enact a bill that would have allowed terminally ill patients to seek lethal medication under strictly controlled conditions. The version that passed the House was modeled on Oregon’s successful law.

The Senate vote was expected to be very close. And at a crucial moment, Galbraith and another guy I’m pleased to call “former Senator,” Bob Hartwell, forced a radical rewrite of the bill that basically stripped away all the controls and protections. Galbraith was the driving force behind the idea; he wanted aid-in-dying without any state controls. The idea appealed to no one else, but he refused to budge. In the end, a House-Senate conference committed settled on a Frankenstein monster of a bill that imposed Oregon-style protections at first, but is set to remove them in the year 2016.

It was a ridiculous bill, but it did get aid-in-dying onto the books. And by all accounts, it’s been a success so far: very few people have used it, and even fewer have actually taken a fatal dose, but it does provide a safety valve for those truly in extremis without posing any visible danger to anyone else.

It works. But because of the Galbraith-Hartwell maneuver, the bill has to be reopened this year. Otherwise, we’d enter a Wild West situation, as the Vermont Press Bureau’s Neal Goswami outlines:

If the law is not changed, physicians will no longer be required to tell patients in person and in writing of their diagnosis, prognosis, range of treatment options, risks of taking medication and probable result of taking medication.

Nobody wants that. But thanks to Galbraith and Hartwell, the issue has to be reopened. This week, the Senate Health & Welfare Committee held a hearing on a bill that would continue the current protections beyond 2016. This has given opponents of aid-in-dying a second crack at killing the legislation. According to Goswami:

… opponents of Act 39 will look to repeal it and have allies in the Legislature who will sponsor amendments with that purpose when the legislation to keep the safeguards hits the Senate floor.

Great. We spent endless hours debating aid-in-dying and arrived at a substantial consensus. The resulting bill has worked as intended. But now, in a session already overloaded with contentious issues like the budget, taxes, Lake Champlain cleanup, education reform, and health care, we may have to live through a repeat of the 2013 debate.

And we have Peter Galbraith and his running buddy Bob Hartwell to thank for that. I really, really hope we’ve seen the last of those two assclowns.


Happy budget fun times

The two House committees in charge of the state’s purse strings got together for a joint meeting Wednesday afternoon, and heard a solid hour of sobering news. The state has a substantial budget gap that seems to be widening by the day, and there is little appetite for the scale of cutbacks or tax increases necessary to close it. The two panels: Ways and Means, which acts on taxation and revenue; and Appropriations, which makes the spending decisions. In a tough budget year like this one, each of the two panels wanted to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the other.

The bulk of the session was a walkthrough of proposed expenditures and revenues for the coming fiscal year, led by Joint Fiscal Office budget guru* Sara Teachout.

*Not necessarily her actual title. 

Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office, pointing to a large flatscreen display full of dispiriting numbers.

Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office, pointing to a large flatscreen display full of dispiriting numbers.

She began the session by outlining one of the little-known worms in the budgetary apple: cuts in spending would take effect on July 1, the start of FY 2016, but many of the potential revenue enhancements would not. For example: If the state eliminates a tax deduction on personal income, that revenue would not be realized until April 2016, when 2015 tax returns are due. That’s three-quarters of the way through FY 2016.

Much of Teachout’s presentation was a repeat of her tax-budget tutorial I heard at a recent Ways and Means meeting; I wrote three reports on the meeting, which can be found here, here, and here. (If you don’t want to wade through all three, do the last one first.) She did offer more detail at this joint meeting, including a very specific listing of the real costs of various tax expenditures and deductions. (All of her documents are posted on the Ways and Means webpage.)

There was some limited discussion after Teachout’s teach-in. Most significantly, Ways and Means chair Janet Ancel restated her support for a cap on tax deductions: “Speaking for myself, it’s the right thing to do if we’re looking for new revenue.” Rep. Mary Hooper, a member of the Appropriations Committee, noted that a cap on deductions “spreads out the impact, rather than zeroing in on specific exemptions or deductions.”

As I reported previously, Vermont’s tax rules allow the average million-dollar earner to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in deductions. That’s why top earners pay an effective income tax rate of 5.1% instead of the statutory rate of 8.95%.

Two years ago, the House approved a cap on itemized tax deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction; the measure died, mostly because of Governor Shumlin’s opposition. This year, he has signaled his openness to changing deductions and expenditures, even as he remains steadfast in opposing increases on his Big Three taxes: income, sales, and rooms & meals.

The cap would, IMO, greatly enhance the fairness of our state tax system. Currently, top earners pay a lower proportion of their earnings in state and local taxes than people in any other income group.

There was also some support in the room for looking at some of the sales-tax exemptions. For example, the state could impose a ceiling on clothing purchases — making them tax-exempt only below a certain dollar amount.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, Appropriations chair, said her committee will “begin a conversaiton soon to lay out targets [for spending cuts].” She noted the importance of the joint meeting for gaining a clearer picture of “where the revenue could be coming from.”

The meeting was one more small step in what promises to be a long, grinding process leading to decisions that will make at least some constituencies unhappy. As one Statehouse observer told me — only half jokingly — “it might take until July” before they can work everything out.