Legislative Report Card

The first year of the new legislative biennium has now entered the history books, and while our overall verdict - it could have been worse - sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, these days, that qualifies for a not bad.

More and more, it's beginning to appear as if sweeping "grand bargains" of the sort often wistfully sought at the national levels of politics are for now, simply too complicated for the overstrained political system to handle. Maybe they await a period of time when a sense of confidence and prosperity has returned to the economy and a sense of possibilities have widened; or at least, the wretched game of zero-sum politics rides less high in the saddle.

Instead, this seems more a time of incrementalism. Small gains or adjustments to the status quo may be more productive or at least do-able. This seems to have been the approach the Vermont Legislature took with the session it adjourned earlier this month.

First, the good news. The lawmakers finally broke through to the other side on "death with dignity" end of life empowerment and marijuana decriminalization. Both measures are steps forward, and were not easy ones, but they got done.

On the tax front, an area we, like most Vermonters, watch closely, the legislators avoided raising any "broadbased taxes", more or less. You could argue that raising the educational property tax by five or six cents, along with the gas tax by almost 7 percent (which is actually more of a user fee when you think about it) were broadbased taxes. But for the most part, the lawmakers avoided raising income, sales or other use taxes, rightly agreeing with Gov. Peter Shumlin that Vermonters were just about taxed out. Storm clouds on this horizon are, however, gathering. It seems likely that the new health care exchange, Vermont Health Connect, will prompt the need for new tax revenue, as will the need for yet another large boost in the base education tax rate. The latter tax is truly onerous because such taxes are already high, and we have no shortage of evidence that the time is truly at hand for a top-to-bottom overhaul of how we as a state organize and finance education. That's a subject for another day, but the day of reckoning is fast approaching. Vermonters can have an expensive system that celebrates local control while shifting responsibility for paying for lots of expensive programs to people who don't directly benefit from them, or a tighter, more effective and less expensive one, driven in more of a "top down" fashion. There's aspects to like about both approaches. But right now, we don't think the more expensive, less efficient option is the way to go.

On that note, we think the lawmakers did more good work by passing a bill, H. 538, which lowers the threshold of excess spending from 125 percent to 121 percent by fiscal year 2017. That's called "nibbling around the edges," but it's a good step. More needs to be done, which may come from the other provision in the bill, which call for a study on student-staff ratios.

The other major initiative on the education front was an expansion of pre-kindergarten education, which wound up falling victim to last-minute, end-of -session budget in-fighting, and was put on hold for next year. In general, we think this is a good idea, as long as it doesn't cost more in additional spending. The state's Joint Fiscal Office estimates it would only add a little more than $1 million in new spending. It should be possible to wring that much is waste and inefficiencies out of the current system, and plough those savings towards expanded pre-K education.

Another major issue which received much attention in the Vermont Senate, and may again next year, was campaign finance reform. The chamber divided over what limits, if any, to place of contributions from so-called "Super-PACS." The House wound up passing a version of legislation which limited such contributions to $5,000, although if that position is eventually sustained by the Senate, that could invite a lawsuit.

This is a tricky subject. Clearly the Supreme Court muddied the waters through it's controversial decision in the Citizen's United case, which essentially threw out most limitations. Yet it is also clear that the role of money in politics is an important one. The best financed candidate doesn't always win, but it's hard to connect the dots between who supports who and what legislation, and how that influences can warp public policy making. The key lies in transparency. Voters should be entitled, and have it be easy to learn, which individuals, corporations or organizations are supporting who, and to what degree. Some kind of commonsense limit seems like a good middle of the road position, and a $5,000 limit strikes us as a not unreasonable place to start.

The legislature was busy on other fronts as well. Looking ahead to next year, we'll be interested to see how the Legislature tackles, if it does, the question of broad-ranging tax reform along the lines of stripping out special loopholes and exemptions, a theme that Rep. Cynthia Browning has been vocal about in recent years. One person's loophole is another person's economic driver, as we saw with the discussion over capping the mortgage deduction and the cloud tax exemption. In theory, we like the idea of eliminating most, if not all exemptions, and lowering the overall tax rate, once these special subsidies and "tax expenditures" are removed. But this is tough work, and in an election year seems like a stretch. But it's a good debate to have.

Other issues will present themselves, and we are always interested to hear what the opportunities are for the public sector to intelligently help the private sector without trying to help too hard. We all want to see a rising standard of living, good jobs, more earnings and better roads, infrastructure and lower electric costs. There may be opportunites for the legislature to do more when it comes to things like encouraging better home insulation. Everyone wants to see a thriving, healthy Vermont, and to do that, we need the public and private sectors working together as cooperatively as possible and both sides looking for ways to boost the wealth of the state.


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