Five Easy Pieces

by Martin Harris

Drawing on the observation by the late Bay State pol Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local” (mostly) and on the title of a sordid little 1970 Carol Eastman “drama” about an up-scale hero going down-scale (worthy subject, soap-opera presentation) it’s “easy” to cite one-short-of-a-half-dozen note-worthy instances, “pieces”, related to two of the usual suspects in local governance, education and land use; and to one of the usual suspects in urban and national government, mandatory wealth re-distribution. In the K-12 world, an educatrix complains that her classes are so small that a mere three (out of ten) failures-to-read unfairly spoil her achievement stats; in the land-use world, planners in one town propose to “take” ( a legally-loaded verb) property rights by banning ridgeline construction, while planners in another town complain that the State violates their citizens’ property rights by authorizing wind-towers where locals object. In the tax-here-subsidize-there world, a New England State (Maine) recently deemed as blue as the other five is now one of the first three States to seek legal nullification of the new Federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for its mandatory buy-insurance-or-pay-a-tax (penalty) requirement, while Rutland is one of innumerable cities providing free or below-cost bricks-and-mortar space purpose-built or re-built for farmers’ market vendors, even while signing on to nationwide municipal demands for sales-taxation of Web vendors although they have no local bricks-and-mortar space to be excised in all the usual ways.

In a lengthy Rutland Herald op-ed, English teacher Abby Brodoski doesn’t quite bite the edu-theorist hand-that-feeds (the ever-smaller-classes policy promises but doesn’t produce better student achievement, but does produce both reduced teacher workloads and more members for union dues and job actions) by complaining about her 10-student sections, but her comments are enlightening, even if her grasp of the (maybe not taught any more?) subjunctive-contrary-to-fact in grammar isn’t: she writes that “..the system would work better if the notion of progress was (sic; should be “were”) more reasonable…” and on student achievement she writes that “,,,our NECAP scores are terrible, but when we only have 10 students in an entire class (we are a K-12 school) the sample is too small for statistical relevance. If three students aren’t Proficient, that’s about 30%.” Not about: exactly 30% non-P mathematically. That’s roughly the State average for NECAP reading, presently (conveniently?) off the State website. (In the more rigorous Federal NAEP tests, the Vermont 2009 number for Grade 8 Reading non-Proficiency is 59%, which illustrates how NECAP tests were designed to produce higher P-scores and why a handful of New England States adopted them. Easy Piece 1.

Meanwhile, in Castleton, the zoners’ Ridgeline Protection proposal would disallow construction above 500 feet in elevation, presumably for the esthetic benefit of those who don’t own the 20 “peaks” affected. News reports could have, but made no mention of compensation to owners for loss of land value, although the precedent was set by the Supreme Court in the 1960 Armstrong v. US case , where Justice Hugo Black wrote that the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause “is designed to bar Government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.” Most compensation proposals would trigger payment when the zoning “takes” more than 20% of the value, but only five States have adopted them. Vermont isn’t one. In contrast, the State has (and uses) 30VSA 248, which enables State government to over-ride local control of zoning when, in its superior energy-management judgment, the State chooses to approve, say, ridgeline wind towers. It’s happening in Pittsford, Clarendon, and Danby. Easy Pieces 2 and 3.

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On political maps, Maine now shows as Gentry-Left blue as the modern Vermont; not too long ago, all of northern New England was old-fashioned conservative. But no more: in recent decades, the leftward shift, mostly in-migrant suburban/exurban refugee-demographic-based, has been applauded as uplifting and permanent by those who talk and write as self-defined experts. Or maybe not. Indicator: new Governor Paul LePage, first conservative in 16 years in a State which was the subject of a 1936 post-election gleeful joke about shrinking conservative strength shared by then-equally-conservative Vermont. The quip: “as Maine goes, so goes Vermont.” Now, Maine is one of only three States (so far) to join in legal Nullification procedures against the Federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The other two are OK (no surprise) and NJ (surprise) and there are 25 more which have been active in the related Tenth Amendment division-of-authority- between-States-and-Federal movement, and which may soon sign on. Maybe Maine isn’t as permanently blue as Vermont after all. As Maine goes, so doesn’t Vermont. Easy Piece 4.

While three States are pursuing Constitutional redress to forbid the mandatory taxing (or penalizing, if you prefer) of some citizens for the benefit-of-others aspects of PPACA, none, (to Humble Scribe knowledge) is averse to re-distribution, aka taxation-for-the-benefit-of-others, in the encouragement of farmers’ markets, the essential business end of mini-farming. From Milwaukee (neighborhood “renewal” via large-scale and remarkably up-scale open-air vendor space construction) to Rutland (smaller-scale renovated indoor space) from Vermont’s Middlebury at the north end of the Appalachians to Tennessee’s Jonesborough in the middle and Georgia’s Dalton at the south end, it’s now standard practice for municipalities to subsidize in whole or part a retail-sales enterprise by a favored group (think mini-farmers and crafts-artisans) even as they move to demand taxation of a non-favored retail-sales enterprise (think corporate book-vendors Amazon and B&N). For the favored group, taxpayers provide free or reduced-cost real on-the-ground and under-roof sales space; from the disfavored group, taxpayers demand money for the unreal in-the-cloud sales “virtual space”. Taxpayer/local government cognitive dissonance, the strange ability to hold two conflicting concepts simultaneously? You decide. Easy Piece 5.