Tag Archives: property taxes

The unintended consequences of law

Conceptual rendering of the Act 46 debate. Dave Sharpe's in there somewhere.

Conceptual rendering of the Act 46 debate. Dave Sharpe’s in there somewhere.

This Act 46 thing is turning into a giant-sized tangle of no-win, isn’t it?

The House and Senate are at odds, with the Senate voting to repeal limits on school budgets and the House considering a range of tweaks. The Senate is also throwing the House under the bus, disavowing any responsibility for the spending limits. The Governor is hounding the Legislature to repeal without thinking about it too much. On top of all that, we discover that the Agency of Education misinterpreted a key passage of Act 46 in a way that changes the actual limits for many a district.

Meanwhile, the Republicans can just sit in the balcony, laughing and throwing Jujubes. As VTDigger’s Anne Galloway notes, unless the House gets buffaloed into changing course, the Republicans will get exactly what they want: the limits will remain in place and the Democrats will look like disorganized idiots who don’t care about rising property taxes. And if the limits are repealed, the Republicans will get something just about as juicy: the Democrats repealing a measure designed to provide some tax relief, and looking like idiots in the process.

Meanwhile, school districts are closing in on Town Meeting time with no idea how to plan their budgets.

Yeah, nice. This lame-duck session is off to a rip-roaring start.

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The One Percenters aren’t discouraged by our tax system

Every time someone suggests raising taxes on the wealthy, there’s an immediate outcry that we can’t risk driving them out of Vermont. The most frequent crier is Governor Shumlin himself, who insists that wealthy Vermonters are already fleeing the state in droves. He’s got no evidence, and studies have shown little to no out-migration by the rich after state tax increases.

Plus, there’s the well-documented fact that top earners get the best deal of anyone under Vermont’s current tax system. And now comes Lisa McCormack of the Stowe Reporter with a story crossposted on VTDigger:


Yeah, turns out that while property taxes are hurting the middle class, the wealthy are undeterred from buying top-shelf second homes. The numbers:

2014 was “the strongest year in the luxury market since 2009.” Overall sales of residential units in Stowe were up by nine percent, the “average sales price was $598,870, up 10 percent compared to 2013.” And…

The median price — the point at which half of homes sold for more, and half for less — rose 30 percent to $485,000.

The market shows no sign of slowing down, according to area Realtors.

One broker describes “a really strong and stable market… [that] is showing potential for long-term growth.”

The majority of residential sales in Stowe are to second-home buyers, “looking for investment properties.” Especially at the upper end of the market. So not only are they undeterred from buying — they believe that Vermont vacation homes will continue to rise in value. Which wouldn’t be the case if the One Percent were abandoning Vermont.

Meanwhile, the rest of Lamoille County is lagging. Residential sales were up, but the median sale price actually decreased by three percent. The wealth gap widens.

This isn’t decisive proof that there’s more room to tax the rich. But it’s further evidence against the fearmongering of Shumlin and his fellow-travelers.

Vermont’s newest pundit

Er, that would be me.

I just got off the phone after spending almost 90 minutes on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show, looking back at the gubernatorial election, how we got it so wrong, and what it all means. There were a lot of great phone calls from all parts of the political spectrum, and Mark was (as always) a great host, gently guiding the discussion while allowing plenty of room for callers to drive the conversation.

I didn’t always agree with the callers, and I’m sure they didn’t always agree with me. But they were intelligent and thoughtful. They saw things from their own viewpoints and interpreted events accordingly, but they weren’t shrill or doctrinaire. It was a pleasure to spend time and share ideas with them.

My big takeaways are:

— People are smarter than the likes of me give them credit for. One of the structural drawbacks of being a writer or reporter or politician is that you live in your own little world. I do my writing from my home office. Reporters spend the vast majority of their time in their offices. Reporters and politicians spend their time talking to each other. Sure, politicians hit the road and press the flesh. But that’s a small part of what they do.  Our perspectives are skewed by how and where we spend our time and who we talk to.

— Governor Shumlin’s biggest problems are that he’s seen as out of touch, and as a bad manager. And that’s job one, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative: take care of business. Get the roads plowed and the cops on the beat and the teachers in the classrooms. Spend the people’s money wisely and well. If you do that, people will reward you, no matter what your ideology.

His out-of-touchness was a constellation of things: the outside travel, the fundraising from corporate interests, his habit of saying whatever he thinks his current audience wants to hear.

Look at the people who’ve won respect in Vermont. People like George Aiken and Dick Snelling and Bernie Sanders and Jim Douglas and Pat Leahy and Phil Scott. Ideologically, they have very little in common. But they are seen as honest brokers who care about doing government well and taking care of the people as best they can.

Governor Shumlin was brilliant during and after Tropical Storm Irene. He has been far less effective in the day-to-day business of government. The continued failure of Vermont Health Connect is the single biggest thing, but there’s also the problems at the Department of Children and Families and the failure to address rising school costs and the failed IT contracts (which was also a trouble spot for Jim Douglas, but Shumlin hasn’t fixed it).

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few other things. But the point is, if the voters entrust you with public office, you have to carry out the office’s duties effectively. That’s the most important thing. Especially if you’re a liberal who wants government to do more. People will go along with you if they think you’re doing a good job.

And pretty much nobody, on the left, right, or center, thought Shumlin was doing a good job.

— By contrast, Scott Milne, for all his faults (in some ways, because of his faults), did seem authentic. He was a real person, warts and all. He was open to new ideas from all sides, and his primary focus was to make government work well. In many ways, he was the perfect anti-Shumlin.

That’s the message I got over and over again on the radio this morning. Well, there were many messages, but those are the big ones. It was informative, and it was a lot of fun. Thanks to Mark, his listeners, and WDEV for giving me the opportunity.

Money can’t buy me love

"I'm not dead yet!" said a soft, muffled voice.

“I’m not dead yet!” said a soft, muffled voice.

The race for Governor of Vermont had all the makings of “Bambi Vs. Godzilla II: The Re-Flattening.” Scott MIlne was a badly underfunded candidate who ran a goofy, error-filled campaign, while Peter Shumlin was the consummate political pro with a huge bankroll and a far stronger party apparatus.

And yet, here we are in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, and the race is technically too close to call. Shumlin’s almost certain to finish first, but with an embarrassingly small margin. This election is a crippling blow to his dream of single-payer health care, and to whatever his hopes were for the rest of his political career. No longer is he the guy who outsmarted a tough Democratic field and Brian Dubie in 2010, romped to re-election two years later, and built a fundraising operation the likes of which had never been seen in Vermont; he is now, and forever will be, the guy who spent nine hundred thousand bucks and almost lost to Scott Freakin’ Milne, who now looks like 2014’s answer to Fred Tuttle. Which would put Shumlin in the role of Jack McMullen, ugh.

The lessons of that Beatles lyric will also have to be learned at Democratic Party headquarters, where much money was spent and a lot of smart people were paid to run a campaign machine capable of overcoming all the obstacles in their path. Myself, I put a lot of stock in that operation, and I was wrong. The Dems have some serious soul-searching to do. How could they have such a strong grassroots organization, and yet be so out of touch with the grass roots?

In terms of issues, my diagnosis is that the Democrats (and the Progressives) misread the electorate, failing to address the issue of the year — property taxes. There was a fatal degree of hubris in the Shumlin Administration’s continually trotting out fresh issues, all of which were worthy of attention — but which diverted the government away from the lunchpail concerns of real folks.

You know, all those people who get to vote.

Property taxes were #1 on that list. And the Democratic majority was seen as unwilling or unable to tackle the issue.

Aside from property taxes, the second biggest problem (in my humble and sometimes dead wrong opinion) is the feeble economic recovery, featuring endless stagnation for the working and middle classes. This is not Governor Shumlin’s fault; it’s the way America’s economy is going. But he gets credit when times are good, and takes the blame when they’re not. Times are still tough for a lot of Vermont voters. I’m not sold that Vermonters favor the Republican prescription of cutting taxes and regulation, but they do have to see some tangible benefits from a Democratic administration.

Finally, if 2012 showcased Peter Shumlin’s good side — the solid helmsman who kept things running after Tropical Storm Irene and steered Vermont on his chosen course — then 2014 showed him at his worst: the all-too-polished politico who says whatever he thinks people want to hear, who can’t be trusted, who’s not nearly as good at day-to-day operation as he is at crisis management, and who is, frankly, seen as arrogant and unwilling to listen to those who disagree with him.

Scott Milne was, literally and figuratively, the anti-Shumlin. He got a lot of votes merely because he was Not Peter Shumlin. But beyond that, his extreme lack of polish — which seemed to be a fatal flaw — actually made him seem authentic, especially in contrast to Shumlin, the political animal. That’s why I compare him to Fred Tuttle.

But the avatar of out-of-touch liberalism was Dean Corren, the spectacularly failed Prog/Dem candidate for Lieutenant Governor. He qualified for public financing, which gave him enough money to run a competitive race. And he failed to come anywhere close to Cass Gekas’ late-starting, underfunded campaign in 2012. Corren had good ideas, but again, they were untethered to the everyday concerns of voters. It was the worst possible year for a rather prickly Progressive policy wonk with blue-sky ideas on energy and health care. And Phil Scott was his worst possible opponent.

I’m sure somebody will accuse me of lipsticking the pig here, but this could turn out to be a very good thing for the Democrats. It ought to kick the complacency out of them, and the hubris out of the governor’s office. They’ll have to take a serious look at how it all went wrong and try to fix it. If they do, they can reform and refocus themselves without the usual necessary step of actually losing power.

On the other hand, we could be in for a period of infighting, mutual recrimination, and descent into actual defeat in two years’ time. One thing’s for sure: a lot of potentially good Republican candidates sat this one out because they thought there was no chance.

They won’t make that mistake again.

Shocker: Realtor-commissioned survey finds property taxes too high

In the category of Not At All Motivated By Self-Interest, No Sirree, comes an opinion poll from Vermont Realtors on the subject of property taxes.

Surprise: they’re too high.

According to the survey, 76 percent of respondents say that property taxes are too high. The poll also demonstrates that this is a non-partisan issue, with two-thirds of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 85 percent of Republicans sharing the belief that property taxes are too high.

The first thought with stuff like this is: Well, of course. It fits the Realtors’ preconceived political narrative. But the methodology — fully explained in the news release, thank you — is reasonably solid. And there’s no doubt that a lot of Vermonters think the property tax system is out of whack.

But let’s look a bit deeper. The key question in the survey was “Do you believe property taxes are too high, too low, or about right for the services you receive?”

When you start out asking taxpayers if their taxes are too high, you’ve invited a positive response. How many people are going to volunteer that their taxes are too low?

And the consensus rapidly dissolves when people were asked what to do about it.

 According to the poll, 49 percent of respondents say there is a great need [to reform the way public schools are funded], while 26 percent believe that there is “some” need. Just nine percent say there is little need and only eight percent see no need.

To which VR President Donna Cusson noted, “The intensity on the need for change is striking.”

Actually, I kinda thought the opposite. 76% say their property taxes are too high, but only 49% say there is a “great need” for change. That’s a lot of people complaining about property taxes but lukewarm on change. Probably because, as everybody knows, the devil is in the details. And, as everybody knows, it we lessen the property tax burden, we either have to cut spending on our high-performing and well-loved public schools OR we have to raise taxes somewhere else.

Here's another reason to reform the system. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Here’s another reason to reform the system. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

In its press release, VR described the results of two questions. There were other questions, and VR is not releasing those numbers. It says it “has shared the results of the survey directly with candidates for office in an effort to initiate a dialogue about the need for property tax reform…”

So… it wants to tell candidates what the voters think, but it doesn’t want to let the voters know? That’s a bit curious.

I suspect that some of the other survey results were perhaps less forceful. If, say, respondents were asked how best to fix the system, I’m guessing there wouldn’t be any real consensus. Because all the alternatives are unpalatable. And that’s why it’s been so difficult for the Legislature to tackle the issue.

One other oddity: The VR release is dated September 29. At the time, apparently, it got zero attention in the media. This morning, VTDigger posted the release in its ever-popular “Press Releases” section, which is where I noticed it.

Beware the fast-talking gentlemen bearing snake oil

Must be fall. Traditional time for fairs and festivals around our state. And one of the traditional accompaniments to these events is the patent-medicine man, selling his Secret Natural Herbal Remedies, good for whatever ailments may befall Man, Woman, Child, Horse, and Dog.

And hightailing it to the next town before too many locals get sick from the dubious contents of those thick, opaque bottles.

Well, here come our snake-oil salesmen of politics, hawking their Foolproof Solutions To Our School Funding Ills. Just a tablespoon of my tincture, they cry, and all your problems are solved.

ambition-pillsOn the back of one horse-drawn cart we find a tall slender redhead brandishing a bottle of Olde Mahatma’s Secret Curative, a formula crafted by the Wise Men of the Far East (a.k.a. Pomfret), a stern purgative guaranteed to cleanse the system of blockages, growths, tumors and humors of all sorts, paving the way for a fresh start in a bright new tomorrow.

Behind all the label’s mumbo-jumbo, Olde Mahatma’s Curative is a simple solution with only one active ingredient: a two-year freeze on property taxes. This seemingly harsh treatment pays no heed to complications or practicalities; it just reams out the entire waterworks.

Over here, across the town square, is a dark-haired figure of serious mien offering Doc Feliciano’s Ache-Be-Gone, an elixir which, taken internally or applied externally*, is strong enough to banish every trace of pain from any cause, including lumbago, neuralgia, ague, impetigo, quinsy, and The Screws. Doc F has used all his extensive scientific training to fashion a singular combination of analgesics, potions, and elixirs, including some that have been foolishly prohibited by unimaginative authorities.

*You choose the method and dosage, for each man is the best judge of his own medicinal needs. 

Doc Feliciano promises to banish all pain and discomfort from the unrelenting pressure of property taxes through the indubitable mechanisms of the Free Market. His solution for a public school system with too few students and rising costs? A whole lot more schools! Free Choice For All! Which will, somehow, magically, bring down the cost of the system.

My friends, you would be wise to eschew the easy blandishments of the political snake-oil salesman. Complicated problems require time and care, and nuanced approaches by learned practitioners. You will not find the answers to your educational troubles at the bottom of a murky brown bottle! Keep your hard-earned money in your pocket, and let the peddlers be on their way.

Scott Milne hints at an actual policy position

So, Our Man Mahatma was up in Newport on Wednesday, hangin’ out at the Agway and talkin’ politics with the folks. And there to capture the excitement was a camera from the Newport Dispatch, an online-only news website.

Simple, short video, a few Q&A’s; one of which concerned rising property taxes. And while Milne did not take an actual position, he did hint at the vague outlines of a position. Which, for him, constitutes news. Take it away, Mahatma:

“I think there’s a need to rapidly address a solution for not having taxes increase any more while we figure out how to restructure things. That’s gonna be one of the fundamental principles of our campaign, something we’ll be talking a lot more about over the next two weeks. So I’d ask you to stay tuned. You’ll be happy with what we’re going to be talking about.”

Sounds like he’d call for a freeze on property taxes while he and the Legislature work out a longer-term solution. It sounds unworkable to me; there’d be a pretty rough immediate impact on school budgets and the transfer payments needed to ensure equal funding across the state. But hey, it’s an idea from Scott Milne. And that’s news.

But then he kinda blows it by promising an actual policy in “the next two weeks.”

Oh, c’mon now. When he outlined his two-stage campaign — attack Shumlin in August, unroll his positions in September — it seemed way too late to introduce a Milne Plan to the voters. Now he’s promising a Plan by the end of the month. Only a few weeks before the election.

Meanwhile, Milne continues to cede the conservative spotlight to Libertarian Dan Feliciano, who once again held a news conference yesterday where he once again got more attention than he deserves. The funny thing is, Feliciano pulled a Milne: he criticized Shumlin on state spending, but refused to say how he’d cut the budget.

Scott Milne has allowed Dan Feliciano to become a big problem. Not as a viable contender, but as a third “real” candidate in the race, likely to be included in gubernatorial debates.

If those debates were simply Milne vs. Shumlin, then Milne would have room to attack and establish his own positions. With Feliciano sharing the stage, there’ll be a lot less room to maneuver. Milne will be the Man In The Middle, and he’ll almost certainly look wishy-washy by contrast to the tight-fisted Feliciano and the self-proclaimed “progressive” Shumlin. He’d have to be a very strong, forceful presence to stand out in that situation. And to date, Milne has shown no ability whatsoever to be strong or forceful.