This graph is wonderful news for those who think Vermont’s economy needs to grow. (It is, as I’ve written before, very bad news for our housing supply.) The pandemic has made our state the most desirable in the nation for affluent Americans.
More desirable than our famously low-tax neighbor, New Hampshire. More desirable than the Sun Belt or the tax havens of Texas and Florida. We’re Number One, baby!
It’s too soon to tell if this dramatic shift will continue. But if it does, then it’s time to rethink our policies across the board, from taxation to education to broadband to economic incentives.
In purely political terms, the Covid pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to Gov. Phil Scott. He got to be seen as a decisive leader simply by outperforming the likes of Donald Trump. Throughout the 2020 campaign, he enjoyed a twice-weekly platform on live statewide television and radio. He absolutely dominated every news cycle, and walked to victory in something bigger than a landslide.
And now, state government is swimming in federal relief cash — with more likely on the way. Trump’s CARES Act provided the equivalent of 20 percent of Vermont’s GDP. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act is pumping in even more. And if Biden gets his infrastructure bill through, Vermont will get a third massive infusion in less than two years’ time.
The CARES Act alone floated Vermont through 2020 “in aggregate,” as state economist Jeffrey Carr put it. There was pain aplenty, to be sure. But there were winners as well, and the impact was greatly softened by the federal government’s ability (and willingness) to deficit spend. 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.
On Tuesday, Scott unveiled his billion-dollar plan to use a big chunk of the federal ARPA money. It includes just about everything on everybody’s wish list, and provides a huge boost to state initiatives that Scott insisted we couldn’t afford on our own. And the money will be spent over the next four years, which will make it extremely difficult to run against Scott in the next two cycles.
Submitted for your consideration: Michael Harrington, commissioner of the Department of Labor, and three-time offender against good government.
The latest offense is a massive cockup in printing IRS Forms 1099 for Vermonters who collected unemployment benefits in 2020. Tens of thousands of people received forms that contained other people’s personal information instead of their own, which is a low-tech kind of privacy breach in our age of digital hacking.
This will require a costly fix. DOL will reprint all 180,000 forms and mail them all out, plus it will provide prepaid envelopes to those who got bad 1099s so they can return the faulty forms at no cost. Harrington also said his department has contacted the Attorney General’s office as required by state law, in case there are legal repercussions.
VTDigger reports that this is DOL’s second data breach since the pandemic began. The first, back in March, saw DOL send nearly six thousand Vermonters’ Social Security numbers to employers not connected with their cases.
But while it was the second data breach, it was the third major administrative failure by DOL during the pandemic.
Vermont’s Emergency Board, an obscure but highly influential entity, held its twice-yearly meeting Tuesday afternoon to receive an updated revenue forecast from state economists Tom Kavet and Jeffrey Carr. Or, as the governor dubbed it, “The Tom and Jeff Show.” (The E-Board includes Gov. Phil Scott and the chairs of the Legislature’s four “money commitees” — House and Senate Appropriations, House Ways & Means, and Senate Finance. All of whom are women, it should be noted.)
Considering the pandemic and all, the news is astonishingly good. The new outlook for FY2021 predicts a very slight dropoff in total revenue, about $20M in all. That’s peanuts compared to earlier dire predictions. For FY2022, which begins in July, the new forecast predicts $77M in additional revenue. Carr and Kavet also predict a big increase in revenues for FY2023.
(Now, if you’re concerned about the federal deficit, it’s not all good news. Since 2018, deficit spending has gone from 105 percent of GDP to 135 percent. Covid relief is one driver of the increase; the other is the Trump tax cuts of 2017.)
How can this be? One simple explanation: A tsunami of federal recovery funds. And with Democratic control of the presidency and Congress, Carr and Kavet expect at least one more big infusion. (President-elect Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion relief package.) So far, federal relief funds to Vermont account for a stunning 20 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.
“Without the federal money, I’d be declaring a five-alarm fire on Vermont’s economy,” said Carr. “We’re all Keynesians now. If we throw enough money at a problem, we can mitigate the damage in the aggregate.”
Last week, VTDigger posted a curiously lopsided story that trumpeted the intention of former state lawmaker Oliver Olsen to “audit the auditor.”
That would be state auditor Doug Hoffer, who seems to have gotten deeply under Olsen’s skin.The Digger piece went on and on about Olsen’s dim view of Hoffer’s work, cited the views of lawmakers with similar misgivings, and… um… barely quoted Hoffer at all. Nor did it include comments from the many lawmakers who have think highly of Hoffer. It kind of reads like a hit job.
There are two quotations from Hoffer, both apparently taken from emails. In fact, I asked Hoffer if he’d been interviewed by the reporter. “We had no phone conversations at all,” he said. “I had no chance to respond to the allegations [by Olsen].”
Well, that’s Journalism 101, isn’t it? A former editor of mine used to hammer repeatedly on the obligation of reporters to talk to everyone mentioned in a story. That doesn’t seem to be the standard at Digger.
So the article was a little malpractice-y. What about the substance?
Well, the incoming leaders of the House and Senate are pouring buckets of cold water on any hopes of a progressive agenda in the next two years.
In some ways, this makes perfect sense. In others, it’s a continuation of the squishy-soft stylings of the outgoing leadership. And that’s disappointing for anyone who was looking forward to the possibility of change.
My former colleagues Xander Landen and Kit Norton have posted a legislative preview, and it’s chock full of Business As Usual — the kind of Democratic strategerizing that’s helped Phil Scott remain governor. Or, shall we say, done little to nothing to draw a clear contrast between Scott and the Dems.
Now, these are extraordinary times. And I have no quarrel with the idea that coronavirus will be first and foremost on the agenda until we’ve vaccinated our way back to normality. The budget alone could occupy the available time between now and adjournment.
So yeah, when Speaker-In-Waiting Jill Krowinski says her top priority is “to bring people together and create a plan of action to beat the virus and it needs to be a recovery plan that leaves no one behind,” I completely agree. Save for the grammatical tic.
But 2022 ought to be a completely different story.
State Auditor Doug Hoffer, whose work is more honored in the breach than in the observance, has released a report that’s critical of the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative.
(Before he sends me a correction, please note that this report is not a formal “audit,” my whimsical headline notwithstanding.)
The report came out one week ago today. You might well have missed it, because it was pretty much ignored by the Vermont media. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t covered by Seven Days or VTDigger or any of our sadly diminished dailies. (The Vermont Business Journal did post Hoffer’s press release on its website without any actual reportage, but that’s about it.)
Which is kind of sad. Hoffer is the chief watchdog of state government, after all. His reports ought to be newsworthy. But the media ecosystem is so diminished that a lot of stuff falls through the cracks.
I also suspect that Hoffer has gotten a reputation as The Auditor Who Cries Wolf, especially when it comes to economic incentive programs. His skepticism runs counter to the conventional wisdom, which is that these incentives are a valuable tool in the box. And that if the state doesn’t offer incentives, it might lose out to all the other jurisdictions that offer incentives.
That conventional wisdom is treated as gospel by the executive branch and the Legislature. Hoffer always gets a polite hearing before the appropriate House and Senate committees, who then proceed to ignore whatever he has to say. And that’s a shame, because Hoffer is a smart fellow with a real dedication to making government run as efficiently as possible. His work should be taken seriously.
PolitiFact came into existence 13 years ago, with a simple mission: Try to discern the factual basis, or lack thereof, underlying statements and claims from political candidates. Dig through the bullshit, uncover the facts, and determine the truth.
It’s a great idea, but it’s very tricky in practice. It assumes that there is an absolute truth buried under the mountain of political bullshit. But what if there is no such truth? In the political arena, “facts” and “Ideology” are tightly interwoven. For instance, Vermont tends to rank near the bottom of the 50 states, or near the top, depending on what’s being measured. If you tried to determine where Vermont “really” ranks, you’d be dancing into a minefield.
In recent years, VTDigger has been part of the PolitiFact network, generating its own fact-checking pieces in an effort to help voters sort through political statements. Its latest effort, unfortunately, illustrates how PolitiFact-style analysis can lose sight of the truth in its search for “facts.”
In last week’s Digger debate, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman floated his proposal for a temporary wealth tax aimed at the top five percent of earners — those who reaped the most benefit from the 2017 Trump tax cuts. The revenue would fund one-time investments that, Zuckerman says, would more than pay for themselves in economic growth.
Scott counter-claimed that Zuckerman’s “wealth tax” would reach all the way down to households earning $159,000 or more, which he characterized as “middle class.”
Well, as I pointed out in my debate blog, Vermont’s median income is $60,000, a long way from $!59K. Also, if your definition of the “middle class” reaches all the way up to the 95th percentile, there’s something wrong. Unless you’re saying the “middle class” includes everyone between the fifth percentile and the 95th.
“Think about two teachers, married teachers,” Scott said. But according to a 2019 Digger article, the average teacher salary in Vermont is a touch over $60,000. It’s possible for a teacher to earn $80,000, but it’s very uncommon.
Scott indulged in some misleading rhetoric, in other words. And yet, somehow, Digger concluded that Scott’s argument was “True,” the highest possible rating.
And the headline on the story was the real whopper: “Would Zuckerman’s wealth tax on the top 5% impact the middle class?”
The answer to that question is clearly, unequivocally “No.” And Scott’s claim, as restated in the headline, would properly be evaluated as “False.”
Vermont has been spared the worst of the pandemic so far. But even so, we’re dealing with constant uncertainty — and a financial calamity that’s just beginning to be felt.
And every day we’re one step closer to the fall, when coronavirus is likely to hit even harder.
Where do I even begin? Education seems the best place. Educators at all levels, not to mention parents, are furiously trying to develop plans that are subject to change on a moment’s notice. This week, Gov. Phil Scott identified September 8 as the first day of school — but that could mean in-person, online, or most likely a mix of the two. Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine sought to reassure the public that, as Levine put it, “In Vermont, this is the right time to open schools.”
Of course, in the same press conference, Education Secretary Dan French conceded that “This is uncharted territory that acknowledges a considerable amount of uncertainty and anxiety.”
This came a few days after Brigid Nease, superintendent of the Harwood Union Unified School District, posted a letter to her community outlining all the uncertainties and obstacles facing her staff. It’s worth reading, but what struck me was the complete lack of confidence that, even if it was safe to open schools, there may not be enough staff.
Letters of resignation, requests for leaves of absence, Family Medical Leave (FMLA), Emergency Family Medical Leave (EFML), Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL), Exemption status, and leave under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) (Which provides up to 12 weeks of leave for employees unable to work because their child’s school is closed) are coming in.
The truth is most school employees are scared to death they will get sick (or worse), bring the virus home to loved ones, have a student in their care become ill, or experience the death of a coworker.
Meanwhile, on the higher education front, colleges and universities are constantly fiddling with their reopening plans — all of which seem to be based on crossed fingers and an unfounded faith in the self-restraint of college students.
The notion of obsessing over, or even worshipping, an object, is often thought of as a sign of primitiveness. Here in the modern West, we know better than to believe a mere object can be imbued with magical powers or even divinity.
Funny thing is, we don’t act that way.
This is true wherever you look. Donald Trump’s wall is a fetish for him and his supporters: If we build it, we will be protected from malign influences. The American flag is a fetish; many value its security above the Constitutional rights it is supposed to represent. Heck, the Constitution itself is a fetish for those who carry it in their pockets but, when they open their mouths, reveal a lack of familiarity with its purpose. As is the Bible.
But here in Vermont, hoo boy, we’ve got ’em in spades. And far too often, our fetish fetish* sucks time and energy away from actually, you know, tackling the real problems we face.
*See what I did there?
Our latest inanimate fixation is a dying maple tree (link to article behind the Valley News‘ paywall), the last vestige of the Ascutney farm owned by Romaine Tenney. When the interstate freeways were being built, his land was in the path of I-91. Tenney repeatedly refused to sell out. When the farm was seized via eminent domain in 1964, he burned down the farmhouse, killing himself, rather than move away.
Only the maple remains. A state-contracted arborist recently concluded that the tree is beyond saving. Due to a local outcry, the state has postponed plans to cut it down and is consulting a second arborist. This isn’t the tree’s first health crisis; as the Valley News reports, “About 10 years ago, cables were installed to stabilize the tree.” Which is a lot of time and expense devoted to an organism with a lifespan that will inevitably end in death.
You know where I’m going with this.
C’mon, folks. It’s just a fuckin’ tree. Let it go. Death with dignity.