The three top Democratic leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder, smiled, and proclaimed their unity behind an agreement on taxes and health care. They praised each other and the Legislature for working hard and working together. “Everyone has given a little,” Governor Shumlin said.
After a week of harsh rhetoric about how “Montpelier” (meaning his own party) had produced a tax plan that he “hated,” he accepted a slightly modified version with nothing more than a fig leaf of additional spending cuts.
After days of harsh rhetoric about how capping income tax deductions would be “a big mistake,” Shumlin accepted a deal with a slightly less restrictive cap than the Legislature had been poised to enact.
The legislature “has given a little.” Shumlin gave a LOT.
Which belies his extreme rhetoric about a plan that was very similar to the one he accepted today, and characterized as “fiscally responsible” and “ensur[ing] that we continue to grow this economy.”
The deal imposes a cap on income tax deductions of 2.5 times the standard deduction, but deductions for charitable contributions and major medical expenses will remain unlimited. Shumlin was supposedly dead set against any deduction caps. The deal extends the sales tax to soda, but leaves candy and bottled water untaxed; Shumlin had been opposed to any expansion of the sales tax.
The announcement came after several hours of closed-door confabs between lawmakers and members of the administration, interspersed with retreats into their respective corners. I have to imagine that those conversations could be boiled down into a Very Short Play In One Act:
Shumlin: Guys, I hate your tax bill.
Guys: Too bad. That’s what we’re going to pass.
Shumlin: I’ll veto it.
Guys: No you won’t.
Shumlin: C’mon, guys, you gotta give me something.
Guys: We really don’t, but here, have a fig leaf or two.
Shumlin: Thanks, guys. You’re the best.
These weren’t the only bitter pills prescribed by Drs. Smith and Campbell in the session’s closing days. The final version of the health care bill is a shadow of its former self — from Shumlin’s original $90 million plan funded by a payroll tax, to a mere $3 million in new funding. And then there was the bill ending the philosophical exemption for immunizations; Shumlin didn’t like that either, but he’ll wind up signing it.
The Governor ends this session, politically speaking, almost exactly where he started: with little political capital or standing in Montpelier. He and the Legislature did manage some significant accomplishments — a reasonably balanced approach to the budget gap, the RESET bill, the clean water bill, a big step on education reform and cost containment, among others. This bodes well for the Democrats going into the next election cycle; they’ve shown they can tackle the tough issues even without a strong executive to lead the way.
The roster of accomplishments will also help rehabilitate Shumlin’s image as a leader. But on the issues where he was at odds with his fellow Democrats in the Legislature, he came out on the short end. Considering the results of last November’s election, that seems about right.