It’s been awhile since Tom Pelham, self-proclaimed prophet of fiscal restraint, graced us with one of his interchangeable opinion pieces. But here he comes again, with yet another screed on Vermont’s impending financial doom.
Hey, you keep repeating it, it’s gotta be right sometime, no?
The latest installment, entitled “Inevitable Consequences,” is all about the same stuff as every other Tom Pelham wheeze: the state is on the edge of the abyss because we (by which he means profligate Democrats) are spending beyond our means.
Republicans have, of course, been singing this identical tune for several years now. We are still waiting for the cataclysm to arrive. But hey, they keep repeating it, they’ve gotta be right sometime, no?
Tommy One-Note begins with his one and only guiding principle of governance: “sustainable spending requires that growth in government spending reasonably equate to growth in the underlying economy.” Which is an absurdly dogmatic approach to government, or anything else. But more on that later.
He cites an array of statistics in support of his case that Vermont’s population is stagnant, while public sector spending continues to grow. He sees the gap growing wider and wider until it becomes an unbridgeable chasm.
And you’ll never guess what his solution is.
That’s right, Challenges for Change, the discredited Douglas Administration initiative for which Tom Pelham is the sole remaining cheerleader. There’s good reason for that: Challenges for Change was a bust.
Before he became Governor, Peter Shumlin was a notable proponent of CFC, touting it as “a great success.” But when he was actually running the joint, he discovered that CFC was a hollow shell, whose projected savings “may not likely be realized.” CFC had fallen far short of its goal in FY 2011, and there was no evidence it would suddenly kick into gear.
“It was a big disappointment and a failure,” Sen. Vince Illuzzi, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development said last week. “We would have saved time and money if we had simply trimmed all departments’ budgets by 2 to 3 percent.”
And a top House Republican, Patti Komline, called CFC “smoke and mirrors” and “a dismal failure.”
In short, the abandonment of CFC was not, as Pelham claims, due to a lack of fiscal restraint by governing liberals; it was a bipartisan dismissal of a failed experiment. And yet, Pelham still clings to those savings estimates that had lost credibility among virtually everyone not named Tom Pelham.
That’s not the end of Pelham’s myopic approach to budgeting. He says that state spending has risen in spite of a shrinking workforce and a sluggish economic recovery. His reasoning includes the unstated assumption that, if the state had spent less money, the Vermont economy would have performed exactly the same.
Which is nonsense. Many states fell into the trap of cutting spending in mid-recession, and were rewarded with even slower growth in jobs, production, and tax revenue. Pelham appears to believe that the “extra” money spent by Shumlin & Co. might as well have been tossed into a bonfire — when, in fact, public-sector spending has a beneficial impact on the economy. Just about every state program — transportation, human services, education, corrections, etc., etc. — puts money into the economy. The Keynesian approach mandates accelerated spending in bad economic times, in order to get the engine going at full speed again.
Also, many areas of public sector spending make our economy stronger, and our people safer, healthier, and better educated. That equals progress. And most of those investments would never be made by the private sector. If government doesn’t act, shit don’t get done. Within his own definition of fiscal restraint, Governor Shumlin is making wise investments in clean energy, education, and other areas that will strengthen Vermont in the future.
I’m certainly not saying we should waste money. Indeed, as a liberal, I feel strongly that the public sector should operate as efficiently as possible. And in fact, far from completely abandoning Challenges for Change, the Shumlin Administration has used some of its principles and process in writing budgets and managing the government. Which is another Pelhamian fallacy: some of the relatively meager savings promised in CFC have, in fact, been realized.
It’s just that the Governor has chosen not to bank the savings, but rather to invest them in Vermont’s people and economy. That’s why the financial doomsday predicted by Pelham and others has stubbornly refused to materialize: if Shumlin’s policies work, the economy will improve and revenues will increase. It’s worked very well so far, to the tune of a historically low unemployment rate and an economy that weathered the Great Recession far better than most.
In short, what I’m saying is, Tom Pelham can shut up now. He is wrong, and no amount of repetition will make him less wrong.