So far, our political media has seen fit to abdicate its responsibility to fact-check the gubernatorial campaign. Instead, it has simply reported without comment the cornucopia of questionable numbers endlessly repeated by Phil Scott.
I do give ‘em credit for reporting Scott’s frequent non-answers and failures to give specifics on his own damn policy proposals. But they need to go farther. Especially since the Scott campaign has apparently decided not to respond to my own inquiries for substantiation.
Some of Scott’s figgers need a better man than I to assess, me not being a budget expert. But others are so transparently phony that even a muggle like me can see through them.
In this post, I’ll sometimes stand on the shoulders of Vermont’s number-one budget expert, Private Citizen* Doug Hoffer. In the absence of any oversight by the media, Hoffer has begun a projected series of essays examining Phil Scott’s favorite numbers.
*He’s also State Auditor, but he’s writing these pieces outside the auspices of his elected position.
First, let’s take Phil Scott’s constant claim that taxes and fees have risen by $700 million during the past six years of Democratic governance. Team Scott has failed to provide any documentation, but there is a little something in his economic plan.
The $700 million claim is referenced in the plan, and it’s footnoted — and here, in its entirety, is the footnote.
Those are links to two spreadsheets listing all state appropriations. The first covers 2009 through 2013 plus the budgeted spending figures for 2014. The second covers 2012 through 2016, plus budget figures for 2017. Combine the two, and you get the range of appropriations throughout the Shumlin years.
Curious that Scott should measure taxation by comparing two lists of appropriations. The connection is tenuous and partial; many appropriations come from special funds or even the federal government.
From my perusal of the figures, I can’t tell where he got his $700 million. It would have been helpful if his footnote had been less cryptic.
Next we have the related claim that under Shumlin, a typical family of four has seen their costs rise by “about $4,500.” This appears to be a simple division: $700 million divided by the number of households in Vermont.
Which is so simplistic as to be fundamentally misleading. Many taxes and fees are levied on specific enterprises, classes of individuals, and businesses. They do not fall equally on all Vermonters — unless you make the universal assumption that a tax or fee on one person is effectively a tax or fee on us all.
Scott is apparently arguing, without evidence, that the impact of any tax or fee on a specific sector will eventually spread to all. But what about Vermont’s rather onerous rooms and meals taxes, and other fees and levies aimed specifically at visitors? What about taxes on businesses that send their products out of state, like Keurig Green Mountain and Ben & Jerry? What about liquor taxes and the state lottery? Those are only paid by voluntary participants.
The bulk of a family’s tax burden is in the broad-based taxes — income and sales. Those rates haven’t budged in the Shumlin years.
Even so, collections have risen. Personal income and employment have been rising under the Democrats. That means more Vermonters are paying taxes on higher take-home pay, and paying more sales taxes because they can afford to, you know, buy stuff.
Between the recession of 2008 and the latest figures, Vermonters’ total adjusted gross income has risen from $17.35 billion to $20.01 billion. That, right there, accounts for a big part of the increased “burden.”
In short, the $700 billion figure and the $4,500 per family figure are partly true; some taxes and fees have risen under the Democrats. But the numbers are vastly overinflated. If Scott wants to continue using the figure, he needs to Show His Work as quickly as possible. So far, he’s been unwilling to do so.
Now, let’s take a nugget from Scott’s campaign website: “We’re currently borrowing about $142 per minute. We need to be more responsible and more disciplined with our use of bonding.”
Sounds awfully ominous. What are those Montpelier spendthrifts thinking? They must be tossing wads of cash out the window, right?
Well, no. As Hoffer pointed out in an email to me,
$142 per minute equals $74.6 million, which happens to be the amount authorized by the legislature for capital spending (Act 160, 2016; year two of the two-year capital budget process). That figure was recommended by the Capital Debt Affordability Advisory Committee…”
Hoffer adds that “Vermont is one of 15 states with a Triple A credit rating from at least two of the three ratings agencies.”
In short, we’re golden. Nothing to worry about at all.
Scott has taken a fairly typical bonding level and made it sound scary by parsing it out by the minute. It’s not a lie — but it sure as hell isn’t the truth. It’s deliberately designed to mislead.
Funny, there’s an awful lot of that being done by the allegedly upstanding, squeaky-clean folks at Team Scott.
But wait, there’s more!
At the rollout of his health care plan, Scott said that during the Shumlin years, “healthcare costs have increased by well over twenty percent.”
Which, when you put it that way, sounds uncomfortably large. But let’s think for a second — not that Phil would like us to think too much about it. Health care costs have been rising faster than general inflation across America. In context, a 20 percent increase over six years is actually pretty good.
Indeed, nationwide health care costs have risen by — what do you know — more than three percent annually since 2010. Multiply by six and account for the compounding effect, and Vermont’s 20 percent is on track with the entire country, or perhaps a bit better. And in Vermont, the first four years of that six-year period were before Shumlin’s health care plan took effect.
Want more? I’ve got more.
Scott has pooh-poohed Vermont’s low unemployment rate. Instead, he has pointed to a shrinkage in the total workforce: “We’ve lost nearly 2,500 workers per year since 2010.”
As Hoffer points out in his opinion piece (hopefully coming soon to a newspaper near you), “This is true, but misleading.” The decline in the workforce isn’t because people are losing jobs; it’s because of our graying demographics. Between 2010 and 2015, our population over age 65 increased by 18,000. The vast majority went into retirement. That accounts for the vast majority of the workforce decline.
According to the state labor Department, Vermont added over 15,000 new jobs in that same period. Private sector job growth has been consistent throughout Shumlin’s governorship. So yes, the workforce fell, but jobs actually increased — which accounts for our very low unemployment rate.
Scott also claims that the workforce decline has cost Vermont “about $750 million in potential wages.” Hoffer points out that when Vermonters retire, they are replaced by other workers, so there is no net loss of wages. Plus, the 15,000 new jobs under Shumlin have added hundreds of millions in taxable income.
There are legitimate reasons for concern, especially regarding our aging population; but Scott’s funny numbers and overheated rhetoric don’t help us focus on the real problems and potential solutions.
I’ve addressed many of Phil Scott’s favorite faux-statistics. There are more, but I think I’ve proven my point: when Phil Scott starts citing figures, wise men run for the hills.