MONTPELIER — The conservative super PAC that spent more than $1 million on the candidacies of Republican hopefuls last fall is getting an early start on the next election cycle.
Vermonters First began airing two new television advertisements Wednesday criticizing “Vermont Democrats” for proposals that would raise about $70 million in taxes next year. The 15-second spots feature disaffected residents bemoaning proposed increases in taxes on gasoline, property and heating fuel.
“How can we afford to live here?” asks a woman holding a brown bag full of groceries.
Ryan Emerson, communications director for the Vermont Democratic Party, called the ads “misleading” and said it’s premature for anyone to render judgment on a legislative session still less than two months old.
“What you have is tons of different bills coming out from members of the party, a lot of which won’t get broad-based agreement,” Emerson said. “It’s so early in the process it’s hard to see what direction things are going in, and trying to score partisan points so early in the process is unfortunate.”
By all accounts, however, increases in taxes on gasoline and statewide property rates are pretty much a foregone conclusion. And elected officials — a Republican among them — sought not to downplay their chances of passage, but to defend them on their merits.
Gov. Peter Shumlin last month unveiled a proposed increase in the gas tax that would add an estimated 9 cents per gallon to the price of unleaded fuel.
With Vermonters buying 40 million fewer gallons annually than they did in 2005, the second-term Democrat said, the state needs to find ways to prop up flagging transportation revenues.
If Vermont doesn’t find additional revenue for fiscal year 2014, Shumlin said Wednesday, then it risks losing out on federal matching funds.
“We can either send $59 million back to Washington this year alone that we’re planning to use for crumbling roads and bridges … or we can fill the leaky bucket from our success in reducing the number of gallons we’re burning,” Shumlin said.
Rep. Pat Brennan, the Republican who chairs the House Committee on Transportation, had Shumlin’s back. Brennan’s committee has tweaked the administration proposal, reducing by 2 cents the per-gallon impact of the new gas tax.
The revised plan makes up the difference by finding more than $4 million in cuts at the Agency of Transportation, and reducing the amount of transportation money used to pay for public safety.
But Brennan said anyone looking to make political hay out of the gas tax likely doesn’t understand the severity of the alternative.
“Inevitably we’re going to take some heat for this. I understand that,” Brennan said. “But I don’t think the public, given the alternative, would in the long run appreciate us losing out on federal matching funds. People would within a year see the (deteriorating) quality of the roads.”
Headed by veteran Republican strategist Tayt Brooks, Vermonters First made its name in the run-up to the general election last fall by bankrolling a media blitz that sought to boost the electoral prospects of GOP candidates in statewide and local races. Burlington resident Lenore Broughton paid for virtually the whole operation. Brooks did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Vermonters First spent about $7,700 to run 31 ads on WCAX-TV over the next week.
Only a small handful of House Democrats voted against legislation last week to increase the statewide property tax rate by 5 cents. The Legislature is required by law to raise the money needed to pay for school budgets passed by local voters on Town Meeting Day. Shumlin has said he’s concerned about the rate of increase in education spending, but that Montpelier has no control over the issue.
All but one House Republican voted against the 5-cent tax increase last week. Many of them say they support an overhaul of a school-funding formula they blame for skyrocketing education costs.
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, said he isn’t surprised to see public condemnation of Shumlin’s revenue proposals. But he said it’s liberals, not conservatives, who are most likely to take issue with his ideas.
Whether it’s new taxes on gasoline or break-open tickets, or cutting welfare benefits and reducing tax credits for poor people, Davis said Shumlin’s policies have a disproportionate impact on low-income Vermonters. If a Republican governor offered similar proposals, “Democrats would be all over him for adopting regressive policies,” Davis said.
“I think the main issue is not so much what Vermonters First is saying, but whether the Shumlin administration’s proposals, taken collectively, hurt the natural Democratic constituencies,” he said.
Though only four months have passed since the last election, Vermonters First isn’t the only political organization prepping for 2014. The Vermont Democratic Party has five paid staffers.
Lawmakers are considering legislation this year that would heighten disclosure requirements for super PACs. Under current law, Vermonters won’t know who paid for the most recent Vermonters First ad blitz until the next reporting deadline, which doesn’t come until the middle of July.
Emerson said he thinks the Vermonters First approach with these new ads will work about as well as the ones they ran last October and November — almost not at all.
“I think it will backfire in the end,” Emerson said. “I think overwhelmingly Vermonters rejected the big money last fall, and I think they will reject it this time as well.”
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