Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's contributions to the elevation of American political discourse may well amount, when the final reckoning is made, to be somewhat less than zero. Starting with her geographically challenged observation that she could see Russia from her house — which, if true, would have overturned several longstanding and widely accepted principles of physics — through the rest of her unfortunate campaign for vice president in 2008 as Sen. John McCain's running mate (we've always wanted to ask that honorable and decent man what was he thinking when he OK'd that decision), Ms. Palin has distinguished herself ever since as someone remarkably free of intellectual heft and the burdens that occasionally come with that. This is a point she might well celebrate with pride as evidence of her linkage to regular folks. That's being dismissive and insulting to those same regular folks, in our view.
However, one has to admit that on occasion, while being useful for a little comic relief from the often ponderous theater of what passes for American politics today, the former governor has a knack for a turn of phrase, if not mangling the English language. Her recent delightful mash-up of "squirm" and "skirmish" into "squirmish" in the course of her endorsement of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy is a charming case in point. Squirmish. It's perfect. Skirmishes — low level firefights between small groups of combatants, whether in the purely military sense or as a metaphor for verbal jousting between two opposing sets of ideas — can indeed be squirm inducing, or unsettling.
We're not sure if Gov. Palin had Gov. Peter Shumlin's recent budget address to legislators in Montpelier in mind or not when she was endorsing the Donald's bid for the White House, but it sounds as good a term as any to describe, yet again, the squirmy state of the Vermont economy and our governor's plan to navigate the state through the coming fiscal year.
On the surface, Shumlin's budget message to the legislators, delivered last week, fails to qualify as a squirmish. It does offer to balance the state's budget and hold spending increases level with projected revenue growth. That's a welcome change of pace for sure. It calls for raising fees on mutual fund registrations and taxes on dentists and independent physicians — an odd choice in a state where we already have shortages of both. The idea would be to allow the state to raise Medicaid remimbursement rates for doctors and draw upon more federal revenue for the same purpose — which certainly is needed. The state also proposes a few other adjustments in spending here and there to bring things into alignment with what is coming in. After years of watching the state struggle to live within its means, tapping one-time funds and doing little to alleviate the relatively high tax burden, when you tally it all up, you can say it could have been worse. A full blown assault on the affordability crisis that is another name for economic life in Vermont for many low to moderate income residents will have to wait for a new administration.
Such an assault is desperately needed. So is a good look in the mirror. When so many residents are being vaccuumed into opioid dependency, and seeing state government as their first defense when things get tight, rather than looking to help themselves and their neighbors first, budgetary pressures on the state to provide those services are going to be hard to reduce. That said, it's also a different world from 30, 40, 50 years ago. It's a different world from five years ago. But while the state correctly moves to boost desperately needed services by understaffed agencies like the Department of Children and Families, we look forward to a governor who will also challenge Vermonters to be their own best friends. Local control, remember?
Perhaps the most baffling part of Gov. Shumlin's budget address was his cheap shot at former Gov. Jim Douglas's "Challenges for Change" program. Essentially an initiative to wring more efficiencies from a state government underserved in that area, the concept was a reasonable and honest effort to align state spending with the revenues the state was anticipating back in 2010, when the "recovery" from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s was hardly a given. Gov. Douglas could be faulted for booking some $38 million in savings before that money was indeed in hand. Or you can also blame legislators from that time for being leery of the wideranging change the program called for and not carrying through. Fascinatingly — that sounds suspiciously like a word Sarah Palin might use — one of the main savings drivers of Challenges for Change was in the education arena. How familiar does this sound? Reduce the number of school districts from 280 to 50. Try to raise the staff-to-student ratio from 4.55-1 to 4.75-1.
Sounds an awful lot like Act 46. Say what you want about the spending caps piece that may have been phased in too quickly, but it's difficult to argue with the efficiency logic, assuming you believe the state needs to get its education spending house in order.
To blame a $23 million shortfall from five or more years ago for being some sort of evil seed which led to his own administration's long running budget woes is, well, no pun intended, a bit rich.
Peter Shumlin deserves credit for trying to hold the line on spending and not going overboard on raising taxes and fees to fund all manner of schemes that could have really bankrupted the state during a perilous economic period. He recently said he looks forward to returning to the private sector, where the viewpoint is sometimes different from the Golden Dome in Montpelier. Once safely back here, he may indeed have much to offer the state's business community. Just put the tired criticisms of Gov. Douglas on the shelf where they belong, please.
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