At a legislative briefing last month, Speaker Smith and the Shumlin administration attempted to deflect responsibility for Vermont’s current financial shortfalls. They sugarcoated the severity of this problem and encouraged members to look at Vermont’s financial outlook through rose-colored glasses. This message came one week after the speaker, thankfully, announced that he would not support raising any new taxes or expand the lottery.
We need to recall that this story began when Speaker Smith and then-Senate President Pro Tem Shumlin orchestrated a historic override of Gov. Douglas’ budget veto in 2009. This was a crucial point in Vermont’s financial future. It was the first time in the state’s history that the Legislature, controlled by a liberal Democrat supermajority led by Smith and Shumlin, had overridden a governor’s budget veto. At that time, these two legislative leaders chose to put Vermont on an upward spending trend that is totally unsustainable.
Each year since, they have passed budgets that grew spending at rates far exceeding the growth of Vermont’s economy and the paychecks in taxpayers’ wallets. Their spending choices have led the state to annual $50 million-plus budget gaps. Spending more money than revenues, creating new or expanding programs, using one-time revenue sources to support ongoing programs and not adequately funding pensions is a path to demise from any perspective. Furthermore, they chose to unwisely spend a large portion of the nearly $1 billion federal stimulus dollars awarded to Vermont to help stabilize state services and its economy during the Great Recession. These spending trends can be found on a chart created at my request by the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office at http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/appropriations/fy_2014/FY09-FY14%20Appropriations.pdf.
At the briefing and even though revenue projections are slightly above target, we were told of a $55 million to $70 million projected budget gap for fiscal 2015. This information clearly illustrates that Vermont has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. It is a spending problem that has been grown as a result of the poor choices made by the Shumlin administration, Speaker Smith and the Democrat supermajority. Choices such as ignoring the rapidly escalating cost of education and property taxes, reforming the health care system (Shumlincare) above and beyond what was required by Obamacare, hiring hundreds of new state employees, increasing reliance on questionable federal dollars to expand programs, misusing the federal dollars that were designed to stabilize our economy during the recession and not fully funding teachers’ retirement health care and pension costs. These costly decisions will burden generations of Vermonters for years to come.
Last session my caucus fought hard for the following items to be included in a budget: a general fund growth rate of 3 percent or less; no more than 30 new positions in state government (staff needed for the new psychiatric state hospital); increase state reserves by $20 million to address the decline in future federal dollars; satisfy the accruals for pension fund obligations and address teacher health care funding; reform our education funding system; and prohibit the creation or expansion of programs until we can be assured that the state is on a stable and sustainable financial path. I am confident that had these items been included in the final fiscal 2014 appropriations bill we would not be facing yet another $55 million to $70 million budget gap in 2015.
Today, we must evaluate every program to ensure that the results are meeting or exceeding the expectations. Programs that do not perform as expected must be eliminated or modified. Eligibility requirements for all programs must be revisited to determine feasibility and sustainability. Duplication and overlap of programs must be eliminated. Priorities of the past must now be revisited to see if they have been accomplished or are still worth pursuing. Going forward, every program and function of state government must be put on the table for discussion. This could be accomplished by directing each legislative committee to spend the first four weeks of the session delving into the operations and budget requests from agencies in their jurisdiction. The current process of relying on only 11 people to do this work is not transparent and does not allow enough time for members to ask and explore the tough questions.
In closing, I am happy to see the speaker has come around to our common-sense way of thinking about taxes. But talking the talk is much different from walking the walk. I have to wonder if the fact that 2014 is an election year has anything to do with his sudden change of heart. Whether it has or not, my caucus is committed to keeping Vermont affordable for all Vermonters, which means we must adjust our spending priorities and not raise taxes.
Rep. Don Turner is the House minority leader.
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