Budget Kabuki

The Vermont House passed a budget this week. Pretty quick and pretty painless, considering the state’s fiscal situation. Lawmakers found money in a lot of places that won’t directly impact working Vermonters’ take-home pay.

Much of the new revenue comes from raising fees on registration of mutual funds. That’s a minuscule line item in funds’ expenses, so the actual effect on The People will be negligible at most. Ditto with an increase in registration fees for large banks. In general, the House found ways to prop up necessary state programs with some fairly reasonable tax and fee hikes. Mostly fees.

Republicans, of course didn’t see it that way. There were the usual, utterly predictable cries of outrage that are repeated every time a tax or fee is increased — even when a fee hike simply reflects the impact of inflation. (Fees are fixed; if you don’t raise ’em occasionally, you’re narrowing your revenue stream.) It doesn’t help Republicans’ credibility when every single revenue enhancement, no matter how small, is a punishing blow to struggling Vermonters and a mortal threat to the economy.

This time, there were loud laments over being shut out of the process. Which, first of all, c’mon. When the Republicans ruled this roost for over a century, how much credence did they give to Democratic ideas? When state lawmakers in Kansas or Oklahoma or Michigan or any other state with a Republican majority sets policy, do you think they allow Democrats to have a fair say?

Of course not. Shoe’s on the other foot, guys. Suck it up.

House Minority Leader (and Chief Budget Scold) Don Turner presented an additional argument this time.

He claimed his caucus had submitted a wide array of bills that would have lowered state spending, and that all were ignored by those greedy, power-hungry Democrats.

Turner shared a list with VTDigger of more than 30 bills that he says would reduce spending, drive down the property tax rate, improve health care access and encourage economic development.

Yeah, well, Turner knows this is nonsense, but he’s simply playing his designated role in the annual game of Budget Kabuki.

Just because various members of the GOP caucus offered bills to various committees, doesn’t mean those bills form a coherent program. In fact, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that those 30-plus bills, taken together, would have been internally inconsistent and impossible to enact en masse. The Republicans have never proposed an alternative tax-and-budget plan.

Lawmakers submit bills all the time. The bills go “on the wall” in committee rooms — each bill represented by an index card on a bulletin board. Early in the session, those boards are chock full of proposed legislation. Most of those cards never come down. Committees have limited time and have to set priorities.

“For him to contend that all we had to do was take down the bills off the wall and pass them, kind of is a little disingenuous,” [House Majority Leader Sarah] Copeland-Hanzas said. “Which bills did he mean?”

Ay, there’s the rub. If Republicans wanted to have an impact, they would have focused their attention on a handful of top priorities and pushed them hard throughout the process. They didn’t; it’s dishonest to grouse about their lack of input now.

Of course, they were never interested in trying to affect the process. They wanted to set the stage for the campaign. They wanted to create talking points for Phil Scott and their other candidates: “Democrats raised taxes again! They rejected our ideas again!”

And that’s why the budget-writing process was shorter and less painful than expected: the Republicans rolled over, while putting on a show of resistance. They’re happy to see Democrats pass a budget plan they think they can attack this fall.

That’s what it’s all about. It’s posturing, not policymaking.

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