Category Archives: Budget

Let’s Talk Civility, Shall We?

The Democrats’ Phil Scott playbook seems to consist of rolling over on their backs and begging for a belly scratch. This all-too-familiar pattern recurred this week, when the governor threatened to veto two very important bills on Tuesday… and then was welcomed as part of the Pat Leahy Statehouse lovefest on Wednesday.

I guess if someone tosses a couple of turds in your punchbowl, the appropriate response is to invite them back for High Tea the following day.

As for the governor, his schedule is arranged far in advance. He had to know before his Tuesday presser that he was going to share the stage on Wednesday with all the top Democrats… but nonetheless, he went ahead and trashed the Legislature’s budget and the hard-fought public sector pension reform plan.

Mr. Civility strikes again. And they let him get away with it. As usual.

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Phil Scott Enjoys a Swim in the Covid Cashpile

As expected, Gov. Phil Scott’s budget address (video/text) was a rollicking affair full of new and expanded programs and tax relief that he touts as providing “transformational” change for Vermont. Yep, these budgets are a lot easier when they’re floating on a sea of federal Covid funds, plus vastly inflated state tax revenues thanks to the purchasing power injected by the feds into Vermont.

To his credit, Scott cautioned that we can’t spend willy-nilly. He said this is a once-in-a-lifetime windfall, and thus a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reset and strengthen Vermont’s economy. “The economic future of our state will be defined by what we do today,” he said at the end of his address. And he warned against spending one-time money for ongoing expenses. “These are one-time funds for one-time challenges.”

Do his proposals match his sweeping rhetoric? In part, but not in full.

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Postscript: A Brief Note on Hypocrisy

In my previous post, I wrote about the series of Covid-triggered political windfalls enjoyed by Gov. Phil Scott. There’s one point I made in passing that deserves a bit more consideration.

The governor is dead set against raising revenue or increasing the size of state government, but he’s perfectly happy to take whatever the feds will give him.

Yeah, the governor is a fiscal hypocrite. He hasn’t raised an eyebrow over the federal government’s rampant deficit spending. And he is benefiting mightily from the ongoing tsunami of Biden Bucks.

And yet he wouldn’t be caught dead raising taxes in Vermont or spending outside his comfort level. He refuses to countenance any increase in the size of state government.

Now, there’s one big structural difference. States can’t deficit spend, and the feds can. But, if only as a fig leaf to cover his tacit opportunism, he might want to express the merest hint of concern over the fact that Covid relief and Biden’s infrastructure plan are classic examples of Keynesian economics — spending our way out of trouble with no concern for long-term fiscal ramifications.

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The Luckiest Man in Vermont

Gov. Phil Scott issued his budget address today (YouTube video here). It was an astoundingly pain-free occasion, considering that we’re in the throes of a pandemic that’s been holding our economy hostage for almost a year now. In fact, rather than proposing painful cuts, Scott offered a generous scattering of funds for a wide variety of programs that, he said, will put Vermont on a sounder footing going forward.

How? Simple. The tsunami of federal Covid relief money. Scott’s budget includes $210 million in one-time money from the feds. As we heard from state economists Tom Kavet and Jeffrey Carr last week, federal money has prevented an economic collapse and even contributed to a boom in some sectors.

Throughout his political career, Phil Scott has benefited from little-known and/or underfunded Democratic opposition in races for state senate, lieutenant governor and governor. In his six races for statewide office, the closest result was the 2010 contest for lieutenant governor — seven percentage points over Steve Howard. He gets credit for being an appealing political figure, but he sure hasn’t had to fight very hard.

And now, once again, he’s the luckiest man in Vermont. You’d think a shattering pandemic would lead to massive cutbacks, but no. Scott could once again boast of a budget that wouldn’t increase taxes or “existing fees.” And according to Kavet and Carr, the state economy will continue to be buoyed by federal infusions for the next two fiscal years. Which will make it a lot easier to craft a pain-free state budget again next year and, if he runs for a fourth term, he may well be unbeatable once again.

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Phil Scott draws a line in the sand

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.

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Checking in on the new guy

So, how’s it goin’ down Phil Scott way?

For starters, he still hasn’t decided what he means by his core budgeting principle, that he would oppose any state budget that grows faster than wages or the state economy. April B. McCullum of the Burlington Free Press:

Scott has yet to settle on the formula he will use to measure the economy and limit state spending: Tax revenue? Gross state product? Median household income? Some combination?

Just a reminder, we’re almosttot the halfway mark between his election and his inauguration. And there’s some holidays between now and then.

Which also applies to naming a cabinet and staffing an entire administration, where he continues to fall further and further behind the pace set by Peter Shumlin in 2010, and which he’s apparently in no hurry to do. Neal Goswami of the Vermont Press Bureau:

Since winning the governor’s office on Nov. 8, Scott, a Republican, has appointed four people to serve on his staff. But top-level cabinet positions remain unfilled. Six years ago, outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin named several such appointees within a couple of weeks of his election.

… “When you have hundreds, literally hundreds of applications, it takes a little time and I don’t want to leave anything on the table. I want to make sure that we fully, fully take a look at their backgrounds, what they could bring to the table … and talent is very, very important,” Scott said.

Good to know talent is important. I was hoping the next cabinet wouldn’t feature Larry, Darryl and Darryl.

And the idea of open auditions for cabinet posts is certainly small-D democratic at its core, but wouldn’t it make sense for an incoming governor to have a few ideas going in? Maybe have a small team do some pre-election planning, even?

If they’re truly starting from scratch with piles and piles of applications, well, sheesh. I’ve never been elected governor of anything (although I am the captain of my kitchen), but I’d have a pretty good notion of the people I’d want at the top levels of my hypothetical administration.

Oh, and here’s a little tidbit that somebody might have thought to mention before Election Day, courtesy April B.

Outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, claimed this week that his administration already “righted the ship,” and that during his tenure the state budget grew less than the growth in Vermont’s gross state product.

An analysis by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office showed state spending exceeded gains in Vermont’s gross domestic product in fiscal years 2012-14, but in recent years state spending has grown more slowly than the economy.

Well, gee whillikers, what do you know. State spending grew in the wake of a killer recession and Tropical Storm Irene, and was then brought under control in Shumlin’s final two years.

Which means what? Phil Scott’s mantra about the reckless spending increases of the past six years was nothing more than a politically motivated piece of accounting fakery?

Er, yeah.

How about that.

If that had ever been mentioned before now, I missed it. (And I’m sure whoever reported it will promptly correct me.)

(And I’ll ask them why they never fact-checked Candidate Scott on his alleged factoid.

In any case, one of these days Phil Scott will have to stop running for governor and start actually, y’know, governing.

Philpuckey

There’s a particular kind of statement unique to the candidacy of Phil Scott, which has attempted to combine budgetary discipline with expressions of concern for the problems faced by “hardworking Vermonters” (copyright pending).

That effort to square two circles has resulted in a phenomenon I call “Philpuckey” after the great Rachel Maddow’s use of “bullpuckey” when she doesn’t want to say the S-word on the teevee.

You can tell when you’re about to receive a load of Philpuckey. His voice slows down a beat, his face gets that open-and-honest look designed to soften the hard edges of Republicanism, and he expresses concern for suffering Vermonters and how we must help them. His voice has a painstaking tone, as if he’s explaining an abstract idea to a preschooler.

There is, of course, a big fat “but” in the offing. As in, “But my first concern is the affordability crisis.”

He may be earnestly concerned, but won’t spend a single dime to address it. He’ll just suffer his concern — for our sake.

It’s kind of like seeing a begger on the street, pausing in front of him, shaking his hand, wishing him all the best, and walking on without putting anything in the hat. Noble sentiment, unsupported by action.

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Phil Scott Makes Tax Cut Plan Somewhat Less Awful

It hasn’t been that long since Phil Scott unveiled his glossy 39-page economic plan, but he’s already acknowledging one major mistake.

As the Vermont Press Bureau’s Neal Goswami reported over the weekend, Scott’s plan to cut capital gains taxes was based on Vermont’s old tax formula. As a result, the Scott campaign has watered down its cap-gains proposal.

Details in a moment. But first, let’s just put this out there:

[Cutting the capital gains tax] would spur tax shelters, generate little new saving, give a windfall to the wealthy, and make long-term budget problems even worse.

That’s from the commie-pinkos at the Brookings Institution. There’s plenty where that came from; the consensus among experts (not employed by the Cato Institute and other right-wing policy shops) is that capital gains tax cuts are, at best, a grossly inefficient way to spur economic growth. At worst, they’re a pointless squandering of resources.

But let’s return to Phil Scott’s plan, before and after. This will get into the weeds of tax policy, so my apologies in advance. I’ll try to keep things simple.

Vermont used to allow taxpayers to exclude 40 percent of their capital gains. That was killed in 2009, in favor of an exclusion for the first $2,500 in capital gains. The change was designed to concentrate the tax benefits at lower income levels; whether you got $2,500 in capital gains or $2,500,000, you got the same tax break.

Scott’s original plan would have restored the 40 percent exclusion.

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Another batch of lies from the Koch factory

The black sheep of Vermont’s journalism family, Vermont Watchdog, took a short break from its incessant anti-renewable campaign and pooped out a single-source article alleging that Vermont is a fiscal disaster.

A new report from a government accounting watchdog group finds that Vermont has a debt of $3.9 billion, despite claims of having a balanced budget.

The Financial State of the States 2015 report, released this month by Chicago-based Truth in Accounting, debunks the myth that states balance their budgets.

Okay, first of all, any “accounting” group that doesn’t know the difference between a balanced budget and long-term indebtedness ought to be drummed out of the bean-counter fraternity. Every large entity, government or private sector, carries a certain amount of debt on its books. Routine.

So, who are these incompetent clowns at “Truth in Accounting”?

Three guesses, and the first two don’t count.

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Hey kids! It’s time for Uncle Phil’s Funny Math!!!

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.

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