2021 is a singularly difficult year to be a first-term lawmaker. You can’t get a feel of the place. You can’t have the casual conversations that make life easier. You can’t grab a colleague for a brief word of explanation about something that’s hard to understand.
That said, I have to note a couple of troubling passages in the maiden voyage of Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden. On two separate occasions last month, he acted less like a senator than like a state representative from a specific community. In hearings on Burlington-area transportation improvements and school funding, he spoke entirely on behalf of his hometown, South Burlington.
On February 19, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing (video available here) on potential improvements to I-89 in the Burlington area. Nothing’s happening imminently; the committee and VTrans are looking a few decades into the future, assessing options for handling traffic flows that will almost certainly increase from the already heavy volumes of today.
The committee and a VTrans official discussed options for making the Burlington area interchanges work better. One of the options is a new exit on I-89 at US-116/Hinesburg Road. This hypothetical Exit 12-B would provide a direct pipeline into South Burlington.
Well, Chittenden gave a strong (and rather parochial) endorsement to the 12-B idea.
Senate Finance Committee chair Ann Cummings is a mixed bag. She’s not the most imaginative or energetic policymaker; she barely bothers to campaign and waltzes to re-election every two years. She’s one of the many veteran senators with a very well-developed sense of entitlement.
On the other hand, she knows her stuff. That’s nothing to sneeze at when it comes to issues as complex as taxes and state revenue.
But that didn’t seem to be the case during a Thursday committee hearing. Quite the opposite; she was shockingly uninformed on one of the biggest financial issues facing state government in 2021. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then she did it again.
The subject was S.59, a bill introduced by Sen. Cheryl Hooker and four other senators. The bill is an attempt to address the glaring shortfalls in the state teachers’ and public employees’ pension funds — an issue brought to the forefront by Treasurer Beth Pearce this year. After having defended the funds throughout her tenure, she started ringing the alarm bell on funding shortfalls and advocating substantial changes.
The Dem-dominated Legislature now faces a choice between finding a big new pot of money for the funds, and imposing pain on two of the party’s most important constituencies. S.59 opts for the former; it would add a 3% income tax surcharge on Vermonters with incomes of $500,000 or more, and devote the revenue to filling the hole in the pension funds. Sen. Ruth Hardy, a member of Senate Finance and an S.59 co-sponsor, presented an initial look at the bill. It didn’t go well.
Pearce’s pivot has been the unexpected policy story of 2021 (so far). She’s been making the rounds of relevant legislative committees, laying out the problems and presenting lawmakers with the unpleasant policy choice described in the previous paragraph. On February 4, she offered her pension testimony to Senate Finance.
One week later, Cummings made it clear she didn’t have a clue about Pearce’s position or the status of the pension plans.
Gov. Phil Scott issued his budget address today (YouTube video here). It was an astoundingly pain-free occasion, considering that we’re in the throes of a pandemic that’s been holding our economy hostage for almost a year now. In fact, rather than proposing painful cuts, Scott offered a generous scattering of funds for a wide variety of programs that, he said, will put Vermont on a sounder footing going forward.
How? Simple. The tsunami of federal Covid relief money. Scott’s budget includes $210 million in one-time money from the feds. As we heard from state economists Tom Kavet and Jeffrey Carr last week, federal money has prevented an economic collapse and even contributed to a boom in some sectors.
Throughout his political career, Phil Scott has benefited from little-known and/or underfunded Democratic opposition in races for state senate, lieutenant governor and governor. In his six races for statewide office, the closest result was the 2010 contest for lieutenant governor — seven percentage points over Steve Howard. He gets credit for being an appealing political figure, but he sure hasn’t had to fight very hard.
And now, once again, he’s the luckiest man in Vermont. You’d think a shattering pandemic would lead to massive cutbacks, but no. Scott could once again boast of a budget that wouldn’t increase taxes or “existing fees.” And according to Kavet and Carr, the state economy will continue to be buoyed by federal infusions for the next two fiscal years. Which will make it a lot easier to craft a pain-free state budget again next year and, if he runs for a fourth term, he may well be unbeatable once again.