At his press conference yesterday, Gov. Phil Scott offered a mixed message to the state Legislature. He seemed to be holding an olive branch, but whether he’ll use it as a peace offering or a weapon remains uncertain.
His topic was the budget, and the differences between his plan and what’s on the table in the Statehouse right now. He cautioned against squandering our historic federal windfall, by which he means spending it in ways he doesn’t like. But he offered some praise for Senate budget writers on one important point:
I heard in Senate Appropriations yesterday they are concerned about creating cliffs by funding new programs with one-time money that will be difficult to address in the future. I couldn’t agree more.
It’s a point he’s made before. Use the one-time money for one-time investments, not to create or sustain programs that will remain on the books after the federal tsunami recedes.
I’ve got no beef with that concept. But the governor expresses none of that concern when it comes to cutting taxes. We’ve got the money right now, thanks to all the economic activity generated by all those federal dollars. We can afford some tax relief now, but any tax cuts we adopt this year will remain on the books indefinitely.
And he doesn’t care about that.
This reminds me of Grover Norquist’s famous quote: “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” Tax cuts will result in ongoing pressure to cut the size of government, albeit on a sub-Norquistian scale.
If we adopt tax cuts this year, and the Legislature will almost certainly do so, the governor will take the credit. He’ll be the heroic belt-tightener, the guy who trimmed taxes while maintaining government services.
He can do that this year. But he’ll be leaving future governors and Legislatures a more difficult task in balancing the budget. If it’s unwise to fund ongoing programs with our current windfall, then it’s equally unwise to make an indefinite commitment to collecting less tax revenue.