By John McClaughry
Vermont’s Republican governor can no longer expect to have a veto sustained by one-third of either body, at least on any issue of crucial importance to the political base of the Democratic/Prog legislative leadership.
What, then, would be the best possible outcome of the next two years? To some — like the Progs — the “best” outcome would be to pass dozens of liberal proposals, dare Gov. Scott to veto them, and if he takes the dare, override his veto and triumphantly enact them into law.
Not being partial to the Prog agenda, my version of “best” is an outcome that would preserve the state’s solvency and bond rating, restrain spending growth, stimulate economic opportunity, deal responsibly with environmental issues and improve the workings of state government. These are all things that Vermont’s Democrats generally affirm, if the “cost containment” promoted by Governors Dean and Shumlin is interpreted as restraining spending growth.
The Democrats will assuredly re-pass the $15 minimum wage and some form of paid parental leave, both of which Gov. Scott vetoed. Beyond those two measures demanded by Democratic supporters, here are some other steps the leadership could take that would, I believe, win considerable approbation.
First, balance the budget without increasing the rates of broad based taxes. To Vermont’s credit, both its Republicans and Democrats have been commendably supportive of balancing the budget, and have avoided income and sales tax rate increases since 2003.
Second, the 2018 Democratic platform declared that the Party “opposes fiscally irresponsible policies such as the underfunding of pension obligations”. Reducing the shocking ($4.5 billion!) unfunded liabilities of the two major retirement systems would strengthen the state’s bond rating and improve the financial future of state employees and teachers, to whose unions their Party is heavily indebted.
Third, reexamine the All-Payer health care financing system set in motion after Gov. Shumlin’s Green Mountain Care collapsed in 2014. Many liberals see All-Payer as a way station to eventual single payer enactment, but others are becoming increasingly concerned about the creation of a gigantic bureaucratic health machine (One Care ), feebly regulated by the State, collecting $900 million dollars to deliver high quality care ever mindful of government-imposed budget restrictions.
Even single payer enthusiasts like Hamilton Davis, Dr. Deb Richter, Dr. Bob Holland, and chief health care advocate Mike Fisher are voicing warnings about where all this is headed, as are numerous independent doctors and notably Senate President Tim Ashe. Since the regulation of OneCare is the duty of a board appointed by a Republican governor, the Democrats have little incentive to ignore its weaknesses and missteps.
Fourth, Democrats motivated by the urgent need to defeat the menace of climate change will want to make Vermont the first state in the nation to enact a carbon tax on gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, heating oil, and propane. Gov. Scott, though a member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, has nonetheless vowed to veto a carbon tax. The Democrats could pass a carbon tax bill and watch him use his veto to strengthen his approval ratings among thousands of Vermont homeowners, motorists, and businesses.
Pushing through a carbon tax would probably not be a good idea, especially for Democratic legislators from rural and small town Vermont. The Democrats could more wisely settle for unenforceable proclamations that “90% of all energy must be from renewables by 2050!” (or else what?), and perhaps a few modest steps like facilitating more charging stations for electric vehicles.
Fifth, the Democrats should forget that in 2014 they advocated replacing the residential school property tax with higher income tax rates. As happy as that replacement would make property tax payers, the consequences of the far higher income tax rates would be shattering to the economy.
Finally, the Democrats ought to revive their platform pledge of 2004 to conduct a “top-to-bottom ‘performance review’ of the functions of state government… to find creative, smart new ways to make government run more efficiently on the resources we have.”
Since then there have been two worthless bipartisan efforts (Challenge for Change and GRORC). The Democrats would do well to emulate the Texas Performance Review created by then-Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat who is now chancellor at Texas A&M.
In addition, the Democrats should continue bipartisan efforts to find workable policies to curb opioid abuse and to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain. They should also restrain themselves from legislating more invasions of liberty, such as the fine for not buying health insurance, mandatory seatbelt penalties, and any of Gun Sense Vermont’s proposed solutions to “gun violence”.
A conscious effort to produce these outcomes, while burying some of the wilder ideas of the Prog-Sanderista faction, would likely well position Democratic legislators to appeal to voters again in 2020.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.