April 4, 2009

Montpelier's High Drama

My "Voices of Vermont" column was published in The Colchester Sun on Thursday, April 2, 2009

Following the town meeting break, we have been watching Montpelier's high political drama surrounding the gay marriage debate and the tussle over cutting spending and/or raising taxes to cope with the recession.

Numerous proclamations by the Legislature and the Governor demonstrate that the break served to rejuvenate the actors on Vermont's political stage. If you like political theater, these are the weeks to have a front row seat.

Here's a quick list of the big issues that are stirring Vermont's political juices and my views about them.

  • “An Act to Protect Religious Freedom and Promote Equality in Civil Marriage.” aka, the gay marriage bill.

The Senate passed the bill after hundreds turned out to attend committee hearings. The Governor announced his intention to veto the bill, for which he was simultaneously roundly applauded and criticized. Will the General Assembly sustain his veto? Withdraw the bill? I hope so.

Before the town meeting recess, Legislative leaders announced their intent to increase taxes by $24 Million in addition to significant budget cuts and use of federal stimulus money to create a balanced FY2010 budget.

Several business people, including me, testified at the House Ways and Means Committee opposing new taxes. We believe the state has a structural over-spending problem and cuts must be made. The 'revenue problem' is only the result of the recession exposing that past excessive spending. State government must become smaller and more efficient with fewer people. That action is long overdue and we are seeing slight movement in that direction.

  • Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Susan Bartlett, posturing for the Legislative leaders' $24 Million tax increase, testified before the House Appropriations Committee with a list of possible budget cuts obviously crafted to induce fear and trembling among the affected constituencies.

This is political posturing of the worst sort. Pandering to people's fears is wrong. The Legislature must be willing to make the tough spending reductions necessary to position Vermont for a least the hope of an economic recovery and more private sector jobs. Some legislators simply choose to ignore the reality that State spending has outstripped its tax base.

Meanwhile, the State employee unions rejected the Governor's proposal that five percent salary and wage cuts could substitute for layoffs.

That showdown will play out and one wonders if the Legislature will side with the unions perhaps inappropriately interfering in the collective bargaining process. No one wants to see jobs lost in a recession, but the Legislature cannot in good conscience continue to spend for a bloated State government.

  • Immediately following his decision to veto the gay marriage bill, the Governor with great fanfare proclaimed his focus on the economy and that he proposed using $17 Million in federal stimulus money "to leverage nearly $160 million in direct support to new and existing employers..."

We encourage any realistic proposal to help Vermont exit this economy with some hope of stimulating private sector job growth without adding to the ongoing costs of the public sector.
  • Not to be outdone, the Appropriations Committee proposed its own economic help package that would apply $38 Million of federal Fiscal Stabilization stimulus money in both FY2010 and FY2011.
There's plenty of room for a meeting of the Legislative and Administrative minds if they are committed to the common objective of far less public sector spending and a far more robust private sector economy.

Frankly, the rancorous partisanship is frustrating and unwarranted in this recession. The economic issues are too important for political gamesmanship.

Enough drama! The Legislature and the Governor need to get down to business and stop posturing for the 2010 elections.
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