Category Archives: Budget

Well, there won’t be a veto.

Lots of standing around and waiting at the Statehouse today. I just finished standing outside the Governor’s ceremonial office for about an hour, and my reward was to see the Big Three — Gov. Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell come out and announce they’d reached a deal on the tax bill. And the Governor added that “There will be a health care bill.”

They wouldn’t release any details yet, but they did manage to close the remaining gap. And they all looked happy standing shoulder-to-shoulder, less than 24 hours after Shumlin’s tough talk on taxes seemed to portend a veto of his own party’s tax plan.

Well, that won’t happen. And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Rhetoric notwithstanding, there’s always a great deal of momentum toward deal-making at this stage. The unusual thing, really, was that the Governor’s plumage displays were aimed at fellow Democrats.

It’ll still be many hours before adjournment; the bills have to be drawn up, they have to clear the House and Senate, and there’ll need to be some suspending of the rules.

But at this point, it seems inevitable that the key bills will move and the Legislature will adjourn today.

Although the definition of “today” might get stretched a little.

Shumlin doubles down on bashing fellow Democrats

If you thought there was a chance that Governor Shumlin would tone down his insistence on last-minute spending cuts, well, think again. Earlier, he’d called two key Senate committee chairs on the ceremonial carpet to argue for tax reductions and spending cuts — in a spending bill that had already passed the Senate Appropriations Committee. This didn’t go over well with Democxratic lawmakers, per Paul Heintz:

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s erstwhile allies in the Democratic legislature lashed out at him Thursday for pushing new cuts after the Senate Appropriations Committee signed off on the budget.

“It’s insulting to the process,” complained one top Dem.

… “It’s been pretty lonely in there all winter,” Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) said, referring to the Appropriations Committee, on which he serves. “I woulda thought they would’ve been in at least a month ago, if not five, six weeks ago, offering some suggestions.”

House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas noted that the House-passed tax and spending bills actually called for less spending than the Governor’s original budget plan. She called the gubernatorial disconnect “perplexing.”

Welp, the Governor is unbowed by all the pushback.

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A new path forward for Peter Shumlin?

Maybe he’s pulling a Tom Salmon, and planning to run as a Republican next year.

Nah, I doubt it. But it’d explain the sudden, aggressive, and decisively centrist re-insertion of himself into legislative debates. At the very last minute. After months of serenely floating above it all, and letting lawmakers shred his proposals to pieces.

The latest comes from VTDigger’s Anne Galloway, who tells us that the top Senators on taxes and spending were yanked into the Governor’s office yesterday afternoon to get an earful of his displeasure with the current budget and tax bills. According to Galloway, he “hates the tax bills from the House and Senate and would prefer to cut more from the budget.”

And:

While it’s the governor’s prerogative to influence the legislative process and ultimately sign or veto the legislation, Shumlin’s down-to-the-wire timing perplexed insiders who say the governor has had four months to influence the budget and tax bills, and has not made a concerted effort to do so until now.

… “Disrespectful” was a word several people used to described Shumlin’s late-game tactics.

He certainly seems to have adopted a scorched-earth approach toward his relationship with the Legislature — after promising, after the 2014 election, an open and collaborative approach. You know. that listening and learning stuff.

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Glass half full, glass half empty

There are two ways of looking at the 2015 legislative session so far. Well, two if you’re on the left-of-center side of the political equation. The right, I suppose, is probably in full Ted Cruz “The World Is On Fire” mode.

You can look at it like Progressive Rep. Chris Pearson during last week’s House budget debate, lamenting big cuts to human services: “There have been program cuts every year since I joined the legislature in 2006.”

The glass is half empty. If you’re a liberal or progressive Vermonter, it seems like we’ve been in constant retreat since Peter Shumlin took office. And it got worse after the November election, with conventional wisdom telling us that Republican gains were due to Democratic overreach, the governor abandoning single-payer health care, and Democrats scurrying to the center.

Then there’s the glass-half-full approach. House Ways and Means Committee chair Janet Ancel noted that this year’s tax bill represented the biggest one-year revenue increase in all her years on the committee. And Health Care Committee chair BIll Lippert had this phlegmatic reaction to the rapid diminution of the health care reform bill:

We knew when we put that together it was robust. That was our job, to articulate priorities and how to get there. But I think in the context of the $35 million that was raised on the floor [in the tax bill], and $8 million for the lake [Champlain], if we were so fortunate as to have $20 million for health care, that’s a pretty big appetite for raising revenue in one year. So I would be pleased to have that much dedicated to health care in a year that’s as financially difficult as this.

And, the unspoken corollary: “I won’t be surprised if we get less than $20 million.”

Which leads back to my previous post, “Peter Shumlin: Defender of Liberalism.” If the House is stripping most or all the funding from health care initiatives, we’ll have to depend on the Governor’s political muscle — if he still has any — to get it back.

Anyway, which way do you see it: glass half full or glass half empty?

The current situation has echoes throughout the five-plus-year tenure of Gov. Shumlin. He’s delivered some good stuff, more than many liberals are willing to admit, while keeping the ship afloat in tough budgetary times. Plus, he’s been swimming against three powerful tides: a sluggish recovery which has yet to benefit the middle or working classes, a tax system that has failed to keep up with our changing economy, and the effort to fully fund public-sector pension plans that were revenue-starved by previous administrations. (Lookin’ at you, Tom Pelham.)

On the other hand, many of Shumlin’s promises have been curtailed or abandoned — most notably single payer health care, the issue that arguably won him the 2010 Democratic primary and hence the governorship. Plus, liberal expectations were inflated, fairly or not, possibly both, by the size of the Democratic majority. Shumlin and legislative Democrats never seemed to realize how much political capital they had; and now, much of it is gone, unspent.

And on the other other hand, it’s not as if the last five years have been without accomplishment. And it’s not as if this legislative session will be a failure if we don’t get significant movement on health care reform.

It’ll just kinda feel like one.

Stupid Tax and Budget Tricks

The Republicans often (constantly) accuse Gov. Shumlin and the Democrats of irresponsible governance — of taxing and spending without regard for the long term.

Well, pot, meet kettle.

Consideration of the tax and budget bills in the House has been marked by Republican gimmickry and short-term thinking. And it looks like we’re in for more next week.

A few examples.

First, House Minority Leader Don Turner’s deal with Speaker Shap Smith, delivering ten Republican votes in exchange for more money for Emergency 911 call centers and the Vermont Veterans’ Home. Thus ensuring the passage of a budget he claims to oppose, and fattening it by more than a million dollars.

Second, Rep. Paul Dame’s unaccountable vote for restoring full LIHEAP funding, in spite of the fact that he opposes all tax increases and wants even deeper spending cuts  — conveniently unspecified — than the Democrats proposed. Which means if we restored LIHEAP, we’d have to cut the money somewhere else — almost certainly in other human-services programs, since that’s the lion’s share of General Fund spending.

Third, Rep. Job Tate, a House freshman who was previously noted for handing out Life-Savers in honor of the Emergency 911 call center staffers whose positions he sought to maintain even while insisting on No New Taxes and More Cuts Elsewhere. Today he resorted to an old chestnut of Budget Theater: proposing a pay cut for lawmakers.

Who, as it is, make a mere pittance for their work. And because their pay is so minimal, the cut would have been minuscule compared to the budget gap. But hey, it would have sent a message, right? Share the pain, right? Yeah, thanks for participating, Mr. Tate.

And then we have Paul Dame, he of the pandering and hypocritical LIHEAP vote, proposing another cynical amendment. The tax bill includes a cap on itemized deductions equal to 2.5 times the standard deduction. Well, Mr. Dame touted an amendment to allow unlimited itemizations for people with incomes under $60,000 a year.

Never mind that pretty much everyone who earns less than $60,000 is taking the standard deduction. It’s virtually impossible to have an income that low and rack up enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile. It’s an empty gesture aimed at positioning Dame as a friend of the little guy, even as he would force massive cuts in human services programs if he had his way on taxation and budget-writing.

As for next week, one of the big items on the House agenda is the water bill, aimed at sparking cleanup efforts in Lake Champlain and other Vermont waters. The Republicans, natch, oppose any new taxes even while paying lip service to clean water. Indeed, they apparently favor new programs (not that they have any choice, since the EPA would come down on us hard like a criminal if we didn’t act), but want to get the funding from existing sources. Like, oh, maybe scraping the gold off the Statehouse dome and selling it to Cash4Gold.com, or searching the seat cushions for spare change.

Or, in Don Turner’s case, scrounging a little money from existing sources and using it “to leverage bonds.”

Bonds?

Oh, you mean debt?

I see. So Mr. Fiscal Responsibility wants Vermont to assume a pile of new debt — adding to our long-term fiscal issues — for the sake of avoiding any new taxes right now.

You know, during the House debate we’d occasionally hear a blast of honest, hard-core conservatism. One Representative basically said all those poors should get off their asses and go to work. At least that’s honest, if it’s also ignorant and mean-spirited. But Republicans trying to have it both ways? That’s just sickening.

Oh, those wily Republican budget hawks

So this just popped up on Ye Olde Facebooke:

Paul Dame hypocrite

Ahem. This would be the stout conservative Paul Dame who’s been Tweetbragging about his anti-tax votes in the House. And now he’s Facebragging about a vote that would add six million bucks to the budget. (Correction: I’ve been told it would have added three million, not six. I guess that makes Dame only 50% of the hypocrite I thought he was.)

Myself, I’m all for maintaining LIHEAP. It’s one of several budget cuts that will hit Vermont’s poor and working poor the hardest. But Paul Dame has no business bragging about a vote to increase spending.

This is part and parcel of the House Republicans’ two-faced game on the tax and budget bills. They’ve fought hard against tax increases and painted the Democrats as the tax-and-spend party, but they’ve also fought against many of the budget cuts proposed by Gov. Shumlin and House Dems. And, as reported earlier, House GOP leader Don Turner negotiated spending INCREASES in exchange for Republican votes on the big bills.

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.