Category Archives: Budget

Don’t play poker with Shap Smith

ItsNotGamblingAs one lawmaker pointed out yesterday, the Speaker of the House has never lost a vote he wanted to win.

Which is either testimony to Shap Smith’s backstage adroitness or his overabundant caution, depends on who you ask. In reality, it’s both.

His gifts were on full display yesterday, although not on the floor of the House. There, the apparent drama was high as votes approached on the big tax and budget bills of 2015. A coalition of liberal, Progressive and independent lawmakers were prepared to vote no — and that, combined with the Republican minority, would be enough to sink the measures and send the House back to the drawing board. Or the back rooms, anyway.

Indeed, on Thursday morning the tax bill was headed for defeat and the budget vote was going to be close.  But the Democratic leadership made a deal with Minority Leader Don Turner to ensure enough Republican votes to pass both bills. The tax bill passed 76-67, and later the budget bill passed by a roughly two-to-one margin.

What did Turner receive for, as VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld put it, ensuring “Passage of a Budget [the Republicans] Don’t Support”?

Well, in a lighthearted Tweet yesterday, I estimated his take as three paper clips, a rubber band, and some pocket lint. The reality wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t much better.

Reportedly, Turner got a couple concessions that will actually increase spending: three more months of funding for the two Emergency 911 call centers slated for closure, plus more money for the Vermont Veterans’ Home. The two call centers are in heavily Republican areas and veterans are part of the GOP base. And constituency trumps consistency.

Beyond that, Turner folded to a big fat bluff by pokermeister Smith.

“Because their alternative was to increase spending to attract the more liberal side of the House,” Turner says.

Yeah, maybe. The hallway chatter told another story: Smith had no interest in dealing with the liberals, but it was a very convenient lever to get the Republican votes he wanted.

At day’s end, Smith raked in the winner’s pot. He got very tough tax and budget bills through the House with amazingly little disputation; he kept his undefeated streak alive; and he cemented his reputation as a moderate Democrat who can be dealt with and trusted to deliver.

The budget gap: an alternative story

A simple narrative has emerged to explain Vermont’s budget gap of roughly $113 million. Oddly, tragically, it’s pretty much the same narrative whether you’re Republican or Democrat.

The Republicans’ version goes like this: The Democrats are out of control! They’re taxing and spending like drunken sailors!

Some liberals raise a fundamental objection to this — but not Gov. Shumlin. Now, he couches it differently; his version is that Vermont’s economic growth has failed to meet expectations and that state spending has overreached. But his underlying assumption — the state has spent beyond its means — is very similar to the Republicans’.

Gee, no wonder he had trouble developing a clear narrative in the 2014 campaign.

It’s true that the economy has underperformed expectations — but that’s not a phenomenon unique to Vermont. Nor is it attributable to our alleged “tax, spend and regulate” ways. By many measures we’re doing better than our northeastern neighbors. And we’re doing a hell of a lot better than states with hard-core free-market governments like Wisconsin, Michigan and Kansas.

(The states where free-market ideology is credited for booming economies enjoy unrelated economic advantages: Texas and North Dakota’s fossil fuel wealth, Arizona and Florida’s retirement havens and influx of immigrants.)

(Yes, immigrants. Most of them are hardworking people who came here in search of a better life. They add energy and ambition as well as cultural spice to our melting pot. We could use more of them here in Vermont.)

There’s an alternate story to tell about how we got into this fix. Strangely enough, it actually shows the Shumlin administration in a positive light. If only the Governor was willing to tell it.

Part of our problem is the structure of our tax system, as previously discussed in this space. ur income tax system has an extremely narrow base because of how we calculate taxable income and allow itemized deductions.  We’re losing tens of millions in potential revenue because our sales tax system has more holes than Swiss cheese. (Sen. Tim Ashe, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, estimates that we’re losing $50 million a year because of Internet sales. That’s not new tax money; it’s money we used to collect and aren’t anymore.)

The rest of the problem is that the Democrats have been responsible stewards, even if it means short-term trouble. They’ve tried to manage state finances in difficult times while maintaining state programs that have a beneficial impact on our present and future well-being.

Programs like Reach Up and expanded health care access and substance abuse treatment aren’t giveaways; they’re aimed at giving Vermonters a way out of systemic poverty. There’s also an immediate benefit: money spent in programs like food stamps and LIHEAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit go directly back into the economy, creating much more positive impact than capital gains tax cuts or corporate tax breaks.

And here’s a great big item that, sadly, I didn’t even realize until Saturday when House Speaker Shap Smith addressed the State Democratic Committee. The Democrats have spent millions to restore full funding to public sector pension plans. Smith mentioned $60 million, and called it a significant reason for our budget troubles.

Which is true. But it’s also the responsible — nay, the legally required — thing to do. The pension gap was created through years of mismanagement under previous administrations. (You know, those administrations that featured budget hawk Tom Pelham in prominent roles.) They took the easy way out of budget predicaments: putting off the day or reckoning. As Smith said, “we’re making up for the sins of the past.”

Really, it’s the Republicans who are bad managers. They are so single-mindedly focused on cutting that they fail to develop any sort of vision for governing. And they undercut the good things that government can, and should, do.

Two more overdue investments. First, the current administration has instituted health care reforms that have produced some waste and a bug-riddled website, but have also cut our uninsured population to 3.7%, compared to a national average of 12%.

And second, it’s making a long-overdue attempt to clean up Lake Champlain. That’s another legacy of the short-sighted practices of past administrations: they ignored the problem and let it get worse. And more expensive to fix.

These are noteworthy accomplishments. They are the right things to do. They are not wild or radical or thoughtless. And they are big reasons why we’re in our current budgetary difficulties.

And that’s it. It’s not a narrative of spendthrift liberals bankrupting the state. It’s a narrative of careful investment in Vermont’s future weighed down by a legacy of bad management and an outdated, creaky tax system.

This is not to say that I agree with everything the Democrats do. They’ve been too careful for my taste. But they do have a compelling story to tell.

Too bad nobody’s telling it.

The nice and the necessary

Congrats to the House Republican Caucus, which finally came up with something like a budget plan, on the very day the House Appropriations Committee passed a budget. Three observations to begin:

— The committee vote was 11-0. Even so, the Republicans were lambasting the budget even before the vote was taken. Are the committee’s Republican members hypocrites, or is it harder to be a simple-minded partisan when the rubber hits the road and you’re in a small room with your Democratic colleagues, than when you’re facing the camera with fellow Republicans?

— The Republicans clearly didn’t take the budget-writing process very seriously, since they waited until Approps had finished its work before offering a single specific cut. Even worse, during the process Republicans frequently objected to cuts proposed by Democrats — again, without suggesting alternatives.

— The Republicans’ budget plan is unworkable on its face. Its major initiative is a call for zero growth, but that’s (a) impossible because some programs are growing, like it or not (Lake Champlain cleanup, for instance), and (b) an abdication of the Legislature’s responsibility to draw up a budget. The responsible course, as Approps chair Mitzi Johnson has pointed out, is to fulfill the legislature’s duty and make the hard choices. Across-the-board slashing is the coward’s way out.

The GOP caucus did identify some cuts they’d like to make — finally. Most of them are short-sighted as well as mean-spirited:

The cuts [House Minority Leader Don] Turner put on the table Monday include eliminating grants to substance abuse recovery centers, scrapping a childcare subsidy for poor mothers, cutting funding for state colleges by 1 percent, and taking $5 million from a fund that would otherwise provide college aid to Vermont students.

Republicans also say spending reductions on items such as the renter rebate, financial assistance for health insurance and the Vermont Women’s Commission are preferable to increasing revenues that would otherwise be needed to fund levels recommended for those programs in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget.

Okay, let’s make it harder for addicts to get clean, harder for poor mothers to hold down a job, make higher education less affordable, and make health insurance less accessible. All those cuts would save money in the short term, but cause even more expensive social damage in the long term. The Democrats are trying to walk a fine line, and craft a budget that’s not fiscally irresponsible while still helping to make Vermont a better place to live.

Which brings me to something that Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning said last Friday on The Mark Johnson Show. I don’t have the exact quote, but the gist was, “There are things that are necessary, and things that are ‘nice.’ At a time like this, we cannot do the things that are ‘nice.'”

That sounds good and responsible, but the devil is in the definitions.

Do you think low-income heating assistance is nice or necessary?

How about broadening access to health care? A social obligation, or an extra?

Let’s talk substance abuse treatment, at a time when Vermont is in the throes of an addiction epidemic. Necessary or nice?

The good Senator apparently believes all these things fall into the “nice” category. Many of us don’t agree.

Okay, now let’s look at some items that aren’t on the Republican cut list — and weren’t on the Democrats’ either, for that matter. Necessary or nice — you make the call!

— The state giving $2.5 million to GlobalFoundries, a move that will do nothing to keep the company in the state. On a worldwide corporate scale, that’s nothing. It amounts to a burnt offering meant to propitiate the corporate gods. And it takes a big leap of faith to think it’ll have any effect whatsoever. Necessary?

— The state continuing to let unclaimed bottle deposits go to bottling companies. That’s a $2 million item, I’ve been told. Is that a necessary giveaway? Hell, I wouldn’t even class that one as “nice.” “Noxious” is closer to the mark.

— When ski resorts purchase major equipment, they don’t have to pay sales tax. That’s another $2 million a year. Is that necessary, in any definition of the word?

— For that matter, we’re letting the ski industry make a fortune thanks in large part to bargain-basement leases of public lands. The industry is understandably loath to reopen the leases, but there are ways to get it done. Instead, we’re letting them ride. Necessary? Hell no. Nice? Only for the resort owners.

— Vermont is one of only a handful of states that exempts dietary supplements from the sales tax. Nice or necessary?

In addition, the state gives quite a bit of money in small grants to private and corporate groups. Here’s a few examples:

— The Vermont Technology Alliance gets a $52,250 grant. Why?

— The Vermont Captive Insurance Association gets $50,000 to pay for “promotional assistance.” I realize the industry is a strong positive for Vermont, but the grant is certainly not necessary.

— The Vermont Ski Areas Association gets $28,500. This is the same group that refuses to reopen the leases. Why are we rewarding their intransigence?

That’s just a few I happen to know about. I’m sure there’s lots more. Are grants to industry “necessary” or “nice”? If we’re asking the poor and downtrodden to take major hits to the social safety net, couldn’t we ask our industries to accept at least a haircut?

And if we want to promote business in Vermont, why not take back all these penny-ante grants, put part of the money into a coordinated statewide campaign (like the one proposed by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s economic-development crew) and bank the rest?

Also, the state Senate is considering a bill that would make Vermont’s economic development incentives easier to access. Supporters, such as Republican Sen. Kevin Mullin, posit the bill as an investment in Vermont’s future. 

Which is fine. But so is increasing access to higher education, providing child care for working mothers, and helping addicts get clean. Those social programs aren’t just “giveaways,” they are investments in a safer, healthier, more productive Vermont.

Unfortunately, they are investments on behalf of Vermont’s voiceless. LIHEAP recipients and working mothers and addicts and prison inmates can’t hire lobbyists or mount a PR campaign. So we too often fail to invest in them, while we’re more than happy to invest in corporations that might or might not use the money productively — but in either case, it’s definitely in the “nice” category, not the “necessary.”

So you see, Senator Benning, I agree with you. I just have different definitions of “necessary” and “nice.”

The long and winding (and circular) road

It’s been a very long week at the House Appropriations Committee, which has been trying to close the remaining $18 million or so in the budget gap for Fiscal Year 2016. In today’s session, members tried everything they could think of, and then some, to balance the budget while avoiding some of the “big uglies” — the proposed cuts that nobody wanted to make.

Shall I cut to the chase? After advancing through the five stages of grief, they ended up accepting pretty much the entire list, including $6 million from LIHEAP, $2 million from a Department of Children and Families weatherization program, a $1.6 million hit to Reach Up, a million-dollar cut for the Vermont Veterans Home, a reduction in state funds for Vermont PBS, and $817,000 from Vermont Interactive Television.

This list was dubbed a “wish list” by the committee — not because they wanted to cut the items, but precisely the opposite: their wish was to avoid having to cut these items that were put on the chopping block in Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal.

There were a couple of adjustments. As reported in my previous post, the committee adopted Rep. Maty Hooper’s plan to phase out the state prison at Windsor and devote some of the savings to re-entry programs aimed at reducing the inmate population and avoiding the export of more inmates to out-of-state prisons. And a $500,000 cut to the judiciary system was technically made a one-time cut, with the understanding that the system will reform itself in the coming year to generate equivalent savings in future years.

All the “wish list” cuts adopted by Appropriations added up to a little over $14 million in savings, mainly from the Agency of Human Services. Which is almost inevitable; the committee was looking for cuts only in General Fund programs, which leaves out a significant share of state spending. Most General Fund spending is in Human Services, so that’s where the cuts had to come from.

Mind you, nothing was finally decided today. Some committee members still hope to restore some of the cuts, but in order to do so, they’ll have to find equivalent cuts elsewhere. (Appropriations has no authority to increase revenues; it only oversees the spending of state funds.) As they put it, “buy back” some cuts. That seems unlikely, however; at day’s end, the committee was still $1.93 million short of a balanced budget. So in order to restore any of today’s cuts, they’d have to find more than $2 million in savings elsewhere.

Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson looking for cuts of any size, large or small.

Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson looking for cuts of any size, large or small.

And they tried really hard today. Most of the committee’s Democratic majority did not want to impose Shumlin’s cuts. Committee Chair Mitzi Johnson repeatedly invited members to come up with their own substitutes. And they all looked high and low, with almost no success.

At one point, Johnson asked members to split up into “unlike pairs” to discuss the “wish list” and other possible cuts. That session lasted almost an hour, and ended with several members making cellphone calls in pursuit of information on possible savings. Items of as little as a few thousand dollars were offered.

In the end, they wound up back at the “wish list.” In the absence of any alternatives, and with guidance from House leadership that only a certain amount of new revenue would be available, the Appropriations Committee bit the bullet and tentatively approved all the cuts on the “wish list.” It also approved a couple million in additional savings that weren’t on the “wish list.”

Watching all this made me appreciate how hard it is to find savings in the budget. For all the conservatives’ cries of waste and abuse and lavish spending, Republican members had no more success than Democrats in finding fat to trim. In the end, committee members of all stripes were reluctantly united behind a budget proposal that will bring painful cuts to many areas of government. There were no easy calls.

This is an early step in the process. The budget has to get through the full House, where trouble may loom in the form of a Republican/liberal coalition that opposes the budget for very different reasons. If it gets through the House, it’ll have to make its way through the Senate’s often weird and unpredictable gauntlet. But the Appropriations Committee tried and tried and tried; and in the end, it couldn’t find more palatable alternatives to Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal.

Mary Hooper pulls some fat from the budgetary fire

Previously I brought you bitter tidings of a budget cut that would mean sending more Vermont inmates to for-profit, out-of-state prisons.

Well, my pessimism was premature. Today, Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Breezy Acres) introduced a plan to phase in the closure of the Southeast State Correctional Facility, and devote some of the projected savings to new re-entry programs designed to lower the inmate population. The plan appeared sound and convincing to the House Appropriations Committee. If it all works as planned, Vermont’s inmate census will be low enough when the prison closes, that no out-of-state transfers will be required. (Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito had estimated that 100 more inmates would have to be exported to the tender mercies of the Corrections Corporation of America.)

And bonus: the released inmates will be better prepared to make a successful re-entry into civilian life. That makes them less likely to re-offend.

Her proposal was accepted by the Appropriations Committee and folded into its budget plan. I don’t know all the details of Hooper’s proposal; I didn’t have a chance to speak with her today. But it’s good news. It turns a negative into a positive, and still allows the state to bank $1.7 million in savings from the prison closure.

More on today’s hot and heavy Appropriations action coming soon. Warning: not a lot of good news.

So what kind of game are legislative Republicans up to?

Interesting bit of byplay from last night’s hearing on possible E-911 dispatch closures, as captured by Freeploid newbie Paris Achen, who is one “a” away from being the only Vermont reporter named after two European cities:

Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, stood at the entrance of the House chamber and handed out Lifesavers “for life savers.”

Now, I would expect Republicans, being Republicans after all, to oppose revenue increases. But here is Mr. Tate, grandstanding his opposition to a modest budget cut.

This is the party that believes we should take a meataxe to the budget — that Democrats are guilty of out-of-control spending.

Of course, this is also the party that has failed to identify any cuts of its own, aside from its persistent call for dismantling Vermont Health Connect. You know, the proposal with the Incredible Shrinking Savings: originally $20 million, now $8 million.

I’ve heard other rumblings of this behavior by some Republican lawmakers, but this is the first concrete example I’ve seen in the media. It strikes me as highly cynical and deliberately obstructive.

The Republicans like to claim they’re different from their national colleagues — that they adhere to the Vermont Way of civility and cooperation in politics, trying to serve the best interests of the state. Well, actively opposing real budget cuts while issuing vague calls for undefined budget cuts is a piss-poor way of doing so.

Bonus: Tate’s rationale for opposing the E-911 consolidation was tissue-thin.

“For us, the local knowledge of the area is important to directing troopers to the right location,” Tate said.

Consolidation would remove some of the local knowledge about remote areas of the state, he said.

Yuh-huh. You’re telling me that efficient dispatch service depends on local knowledge? It’s not like we’ve got dispatchers in every town and on every hilltop. The current system has four dispatch centers. FOUR. In a state like Vermont, the unique value of “local knowledge” dissipates awfully quickly. It’s hard to see how we’d lose critical “local knowledge” when we’re cutting from four to two.

For health care expansion and SSBT, a long road ahead

Last week brought some relatively cheery news for fans of better access to health care and of the sugar-sweetened beverage tax. The House Health Care Committee passed a fairly wide-ranging bill that would help close the Medicaid gap, provide more assistance to working-class Vermonters seeking health insurance and encourage more primary care providers, among other things. To pay for all that, the Committee opted for a two-pronged approach: the revised 0.3% payroll tax proposed by Gov. Shumlin, plus the two-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

A good package, a nice bill. But is it a meaningful step, or simply a McGuffin? When you read between the lines of Committee chair Bill Lippert’s statement, and see the slightly shopworn look on his face, well, you start thinking the latter.

I have no illusions that what we propose will be a final product at the end of the session, but it was our responsibility… to identify and articulate priorities that could make a difference now and could be investments for the future, even in a time of tight budgetary constraints.

Glass half full, or glass half empty? I hear a guy resigning himself to the inevitable disembowelment of his bill.

Enough inference. The next stop is the Ways and Means Committee, where opinion is split on the SSBT and there’s widespread opposition to the payroll tax. After that, well, there’s a lot of room for pessimism.

There’s little appetite for raising taxes in Montpelier — or should I say “raising more taxes,” since tax increases will almost certainly be part of a budget-balancing deal. (Front runner: Ways and Means chair Janet Ancel’s plan to cap itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction.) There’s also the EPA-mandated Lake Champlain cleanup that needs funding. In this climate, it’ll be hard to justify funding the health care package as well.

Regarding the SSBT specifically, Governor Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith don’t like it. Really, there aren’t many real fans; some just see it as the least bad option. Most lawmakers seem allergic to the payroll tax, even in reduced form. But let’s say, just for the heck of it, that the Health Care Committee’s bill passes the House. What awaits in the Senate, that notorious den of centrism where liberal House bills go to die?

“I wouldn’t predict what a vote today would be,” says Senate Finance Committee chair Tim Ashe (more D and less P with each passing day). “I’d say they both start in difficult places in terms of a Senate vote. Individual committees may be more or less favorable, but in the whole Senate, both would struggle to pass at this time.”

Gulp. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. So I guess that leaves us with no money for enhancing our partially-fixed health care system?

“That’s an open question,” says Ashe. “There are the resources to pay for new initiatives or increased support for existing initiatives can come from existing sources or new revenues.”

Oh really? You’ve found a pot of money somewhere?

“I’ll mention just one resource. …This year, Vermonters without insurance are going to ship about six million bucks to the federal government in a penalty. Next year that money goes up to 12 to 14 because the penalty basically doubles.

“So 23,000 Vermonters will be shipping all that money to Washington, and they will get nothing for it. Question is, is there a way to help them NOT send the money to Washington and get nothing for it, but to keep the dollars here and give them something for it? I don’t know what the answer to that is, [but] it makes you scratch your head and say, ‘Well, jeez, wouldn’t it be easier if they just had insurance here?'”

Nice to see the Senator thinking outside the box, BUT… he himself admits he doesn’t know the answer to that. And even if we could somehow funnel the penalty money into health insurance, we’re talking “about six million bucks” this year and 12 mill the year after that. That’s a far cry from the Health Care Committee’s $70 million a year.

Six million, or even 12, isn’t going to buy you a whole lot of improvement. The Medicaid gap would remain painfully wide, and good-quality insurance would remain out of reach for many working Vermonters.

But that’s the kind of year we’ve got. Best to ratchet down expectations.

Of course, we’re now looking at budget gaps in the $50 million range for each of the following two years. Substantial health care reform keeps receding further over the horizon. And universal access? Rapidly approaching pipe dream territory.

Beverage tax pipped at the post?

This should have been a good day for the sugar-sweetened beverage tax. State lawmakers were unconvinced by Governor Shumlin’s proposed payroll tax, and many had turned to the beverage tax as a way to help close the Medicaid cost gap. Today, the House Ways and Means Committee is considering the beverage tax, and advocates on both sides are pointing to this hearing as a key moment.

(Last year, the beverage tax passed the House Health Care Committee but died on a close vote in Ways and Means. Things were looking better for the tax this year.)

But wait, what’s this? Shumlin’s posse has come riding over the hill with a revised payroll tax plan that, according to VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld, “looks to have new life” in the Health Care Committee. Fortuitous timing, neh?

The new plan is friendlier to business, cutting the payroll tax rate in half and eliminating an employer assessment on businesses that don’t offer health insurance to their workers.

Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller says the smaller tax would generate enough money to pay for Shumlin’s plan to close the Medicaid gap. Which makes me wonder how he can now accomplish this with less than half the revenue of his original plan. What got cut?

We’ll find out soon enough, as the Governor’s new plan gets an airing in legislative committees. But its very introduction may well be enough to throw the beverage tax, once again, into the dumpster.

The Republicans? They got nothin’

On Wednesday, two of Vermont’s top Republicans took to the VPR airwaves to make their case to the people. And one of them said this about global warming, really, actually:

I think there’s science on both sides of the issue that both sides use against each other.

The Mystery Voice belonged to VTGOP Chair David Sunderland, who had just finished “explaining” how the VTGOP was different from the national Republican Party — more inclusive, less extreme. He doesn’t set a very good example, does he?

The occasion was VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” and neither Sunderland nor fellow guest Don Turner made much of an impression. They stuck to the standard Republican bromides: burdensome taxes and regulation; Vermont is a sucky place to live, work, and own a business; government is full of waste, but don’t ask us for specifics.

It was not a very inspiring performance. Next time, maybe they should send Phil Scott and Joe Benning instead.

The two men’s appearance consumed about 34 minutes of radio time, but I’ll focus on two key segments. Believe me, I’m not leaving out anything good — just the boring stuff, like their insistence that the VTGOP was a welcoming, inclusive, and diverse thing. Because, I guess, they’ve got a handful of young white men to go with their endless supply of older white men. Anyway, onward.

First, that great Republican bugaboo, out-of-control state spending. Sunderland and Turner performed a lovely bit of rhetorical contortionism, first saying that we can’t fix the budget right away:

Solving a budget deficit that’s been created over a period of four to six years is a tall task to take on in a single year, and I think it will take longer than a single year to overcome it.

And then immediately saying that we can balance the budget, no problem:

I think we need to look at what government programs are truly working and are truly efficient, weed out the waste and the abuse that’s in the current system, make our government more streamlined, get more effective in serving Vermonters. And I think by doing that, we’ll get a long way towards closing that gap and quite hopefully all the way.

The mic then passed to Turner, who first said this:

We have a committee working with our appropriations people, that started before the session began, and have started to scrub and comb through all areas of state government. We’ve initially focused on the high cost areas.

Wonderful! Surely all this scrubbing and combing produced a bumper crop of the “waste and abuse” that Sunderland believes is endemic in the public sector.

We believe that we need to keep spending level-funded. We go to each agency and say, Okay, you had this much money to spend last year, this is how much you’ve got to spend this year, how are you going to address that?

Oh, great Christ almighty. That old chestnut? You’ve been scrubbing and combing the budget, and all you can come up with is across-the-board cuts?

This is how it always goes with Republicans. They talk smack about wasteful government spending, but when asked for specifics, they offer broad generalities.

In other words, they can’t find the alleged “waste and abuse.”

Oh, I should slightly amend that. Turner did offer one specific budget cut, but it’s not a new item. He still wants us to kill Vermont Health Connect and go with the federal exchange. Funny thing, though: when he first announced the idea, he insisted we could save $20 million this year.

On Wednesday, he put the savings at between eight and ten million. Call it the Incredible Shrinking Budget Cut.

Now, let’s turn to a favorite talking point of our rebranded VTGOP: “We’re different from the national Republicans. Just don’t ask us how.” Mr. Turner?

I don’t know a lot about the national platform and I don’t participate in the national level, I participate very little in the national level. I think that’s the party’s role. What I’ve — I’m Don Turner, I represent Milton, and I am a much more moderate Republican than many maybe in Washington, and some in my caucus.

We in Vermont believe in helpin’ our neighbors, we believe in makin’ sure that the most vulnerable are addressed, we want to protect the environment, but we want to make sure people can afford to live here. Sometimes that means compromising on some of these issues, maybe more than we want to.

Yeah, another politician who starts droppin’ his G’s when he wants to be real folks. I am puzzled, though, by his lack of intellectual curiosity about his own party.

But if you thought that was weak, just wait till you get a load of Sunderland’s response:

Vermont is a unique place, Vermonters are a unique people within the nation. Likewise, the Vermont Republican Party is different than the national Republican Party.

At this point he was interrupted by host Jane Lindholm, who asked for a specific difference.

I think in, in Vermont we’ve tried very hard over the last 15, 16 months or so to really broaden the base of the party, to be open to different ideas, ah different viewpoints, and to welcome people we may not agree with 100% of the time, but we would agree with 80% of the time. And I think as long as we can agree that the focus of our state right now needs to be on growing our economy and creating jobs, making Vermont more affordable, bringing balance back to the discussion in Montpelier, then there’s a place for you in the Vermont Republican Party.

Okay, so. Sunderland completely punts on specifics. And his idea of an “inclusive” party is one that only insists on 80% loyalty instead of 100%.

At this point, immediately after Sunderland’s previous response, Lindholm took a question from a caller, who wanted to know about the VTGOP’s stand on global warming. Turner was, again, an ostrich with his head in the dirt.

You know, I have not spent a lot of time on global warming. I understand that this is a big issue nationally and so on. Vermont is so far ahead of the rest of the country on measures to help with this issue that I don’t think it should be a tip-top issue for us when we have all these other problems.

Well, those who are actually serious about global warming would say that it’s an existential threat to our species, and deserves to be “tip-top” in any list of issues. But what do I know.

This is where Sunderland weighed in with his Koch Brothers-approved know-nothingism.

I think there’s science on both sides of the issue that both sides use against each other. What I think is most interesting is, regardless of your opinion about it, there certainly is a market that Vermont can and should be exploiting to create jobs and grow our economy to address those very issues. So I think regardless, there’s a variety of different opinions within the party and outside the other parties about global warming, man’s impact on climate change, but I would like to see us focus on how our economy and how our state here in Vemront can grow and reflect the values of Vermonters.

There’s a hot mess if I ever saw one. He won’t acknowledge the reality of climate change, but he wants us to somehow capitalize on it even though it might not exist. He then casts another coating of doubt on the science, and finishes with an appeal to “the values of Vermonters.”

Good grief. I’m not particularly happy with what the Democrats are doing these days — weaksauce incrementalism, failing to squarely face serious challenges, and squandering the political capital they’ve gained over the last six years. But the Republicans? Judging by that performance, they have precious little to offer beyond the usual twaddle.

Happy budget fun times

The two House committees in charge of the state’s purse strings got together for a joint meeting Wednesday afternoon, and heard a solid hour of sobering news. The state has a substantial budget gap that seems to be widening by the day, and there is little appetite for the scale of cutbacks or tax increases necessary to close it. The two panels: Ways and Means, which acts on taxation and revenue; and Appropriations, which makes the spending decisions. In a tough budget year like this one, each of the two panels wanted to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the other.

The bulk of the session was a walkthrough of proposed expenditures and revenues for the coming fiscal year, led by Joint Fiscal Office budget guru* Sara Teachout.

*Not necessarily her actual title. 

Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office, pointing to a large flatscreen display full of dispiriting numbers.

Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office, pointing to a large flatscreen display full of dispiriting numbers.

She began the session by outlining one of the little-known worms in the budgetary apple: cuts in spending would take effect on July 1, the start of FY 2016, but many of the potential revenue enhancements would not. For example: If the state eliminates a tax deduction on personal income, that revenue would not be realized until April 2016, when 2015 tax returns are due. That’s three-quarters of the way through FY 2016.

Much of Teachout’s presentation was a repeat of her tax-budget tutorial I heard at a recent Ways and Means meeting; I wrote three reports on the meeting, which can be found here, here, and here. (If you don’t want to wade through all three, do the last one first.) She did offer more detail at this joint meeting, including a very specific listing of the real costs of various tax expenditures and deductions. (All of her documents are posted on the Ways and Means webpage.)

There was some limited discussion after Teachout’s teach-in. Most significantly, Ways and Means chair Janet Ancel restated her support for a cap on tax deductions: “Speaking for myself, it’s the right thing to do if we’re looking for new revenue.” Rep. Mary Hooper, a member of the Appropriations Committee, noted that a cap on deductions “spreads out the impact, rather than zeroing in on specific exemptions or deductions.”

As I reported previously, Vermont’s tax rules allow the average million-dollar earner to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in deductions. That’s why top earners pay an effective income tax rate of 5.1% instead of the statutory rate of 8.95%.

Two years ago, the House approved a cap on itemized tax deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction; the measure died, mostly because of Governor Shumlin’s opposition. This year, he has signaled his openness to changing deductions and expenditures, even as he remains steadfast in opposing increases on his Big Three taxes: income, sales, and rooms & meals.

The cap would, IMO, greatly enhance the fairness of our state tax system. Currently, top earners pay a lower proportion of their earnings in state and local taxes than people in any other income group.

There was also some support in the room for looking at some of the sales-tax exemptions. For example, the state could impose a ceiling on clothing purchases — making them tax-exempt only below a certain dollar amount.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, Appropriations chair, said her committee will “begin a conversaiton soon to lay out targets [for spending cuts].” She noted the importance of the joint meeting for gaining a clearer picture of “where the revenue could be coming from.”

The meeting was one more small step in what promises to be a long, grinding process leading to decisions that will make at least some constituencies unhappy. As one Statehouse observer told me — only half jokingly — “it might take until July” before they can work everything out.