Of course, “a line in the sand” is the easiest thing to erase.
Last Friday on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” Gov. Phil Scott asserted that Vermont faces a $70-80 million budget shortfall.
Err, well, not quite.
What he actually said was, Vermont “maybe” faces what “could” be a gap of $70-80 million between revenue and spending. And those weren’t the only qualifiers. In fact, if you read a transcript of his remarks, you might wonder what he actually meant to say. (Part of Scott’s charm, and his political appeal, is that if you listen to him long enough you’re almost certain to hear something you can agree with.)
As far as I can recall, this is the first time Scott has made this claim, which seems to be a gauntlet thrown at the legislature’s feet. It’s familiar and politically attractive ground for the Republican governor, who has to deal with a restless base (and a conservative challenger) in the 2020 primary. Being tough on the budget is Scott’s best tactic for shoring up the base — and for drawing a distinction between himself and those evil, big-spending Democrats and their endless appetite for raising taxes.
That’s a joke, by the way. The Dems may be fiscally looser than the Repubs, but they are about as far as you can get from Tax-And-Spend Libertines as you can get. Just ask any of the four money committee chairs.
But let’s get back to the governor’s remarks. (NOTE: All transcripts are mine, and are as accurate as I could get. I left out the stammers and false starts, which were quite numerous. The gov wasn’t on his A-Game.) Start with this… um… not-a-sentence.
We’re seeing a lot of pressures, maybe even creating a $70-80 million gap between what we’re taking in and, if all remains the same, that we would feel.
I listened to this passage several times, and that’s what I heard. Let’s leave aside the disconnect between the beginning and the ending, and focus on the “maybe even creating” part. He’s not claiming an actual $70-80M gap; he’s saying that budgetary pressures could, at worst, create such a gap.
Host Bob Kinzel asked if the situation could really be that dire, given the fact that state revenues have been humming along quite a bit above expectations. After a brief meander through the Garden of Underfunded Pensions, Scott said this:
So we’re going to be faced, regardless, even with more money coming in, but we could see a $70-80 million gap between the the revenues coming in and the budget we have this year, which is the fiscal year 20, and what we need for 21. So that budget gap will be, we anticipate, could be $70-80M.
Again, “could see,” “we anticipate,” “could be.” And what he’s talking about here is the administration’s projection of the budget and revenue picture for FY21, which runs from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.
I tried to contact the administration for clarification on how the budget gap was projected, but have gotten no reply in almost a full day. I do know from Scott’s remarks that it includes an administration touchstone, the “growth rate calculation.” That’s a formula for keeping growth in state spending below the rate of economic growth, which is a political goal of the governor, nothing more, nothing less.
The governor’s answer to this alleged fiscal crunch: “Thinking outside the box.” You might want to take a few deep breaths before you try to navigate this sentence.
We have to find ways to close this gap, I think, through efficiency, entrepreneurial ideas, and doing all this, thinking outside the box about, you know, really challenging our secretaries and commissioners to think outside the box in ways that we can accomplish this, live within our means without adversely affecting services that are desperately needed.
Phil Scott has been talking for four years, including his first campaign, about efficiency and thinking outside the box, reinventing the bureaucracy. Well, he’s been inside the box — in charge of the box — for almost three years now. He has held high positions in state government for almost two decades. He should maybe stop talking like an outsider.
In his campaign and his first months in office, he frequently spoke of “lean management” as a way to help government do more with less. It’s an actual management strategy, and his administration spent a lot of time and money training people in its tenets. He hasn’t mentioned the term in quite a while, nor has he tried to quantify actual savings achieved.
You could be forgiven for having an intense feeling of déja vu all over again just like last time. We’ve been around this track before. Every year at about this time we get dire predictions of budget shortfalls. Quite often it’s in this same range, mid-to-high tens of millions.
I’m not claiming that we don’t face challenges. The two biggest are: Vermont’s underfunded public sector pension plans, rightly cited by Scott; and what the hell we’re going to do when the economy starts contracting, which it has to do sooner or later. There are sound reasons for fiscal prudence. What the governor did on Friday was more in the realm of political posturing.