Now, here’s a novel way to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day: issue a big-ass report criticizing Vermont for spending too damn much money on poor people.
Yep, you guessed it: Bruce Lisman’s Campaign for Vermont is at it again. This time, plausibly bipartisan CFV co-founder Tom Pelham unveiled an analysis of state spending from 2008 to 2012, showing a 22% increase in Vermont’s budget. The biggest fiscal profligate, says Pelham: the Agency of Human Services.
Pelham… told reporters at a Montpelier press conference that despite a 29 percent increase in human services spending since 2008, life for poorer Vermonters hasn’t significantly improved.
Okay, Tom, three points. First, comparing human services spending with a 2008 baseline is a mug’s game, because 2008 was when THE ECONOMY WENT INTO THE TOILET thanks to Wall Street geniuses like your colleague, Bruce Lisman. You whomp up a big hairy recession, and guess what? Human services spending shoots up, and tax revenues fall off.
Is that too complicated?
And second, Tom, OF COURSE poorer Vermonters’ lives haven’t significantly improved, because (a) our economy is still pulling itself out of the ditch that Lisman’s high-flying buddies drove us into, and (b) much of human services spending isn’t meant to improve people’s lives — it’s meant to keep them from freezing and starving and living on the street.
Can you understand that? Guess not.
Oh, and third? A little thing you might remember called TROPICAL STORM IRENE. Hit Vermont about eight months into Governor Shumlin’s first term? Wreaked incredible destruction to people’s lives and livelihoods and the state’s infrastructure? Yeah, that might just have played an eentsy-beentsy — and non-recurring — role in lost revenue and increased spending.
What’s more, Pelham also ignores the impact of the Wall Street crash (and Irene) by asserting that the upward trend of the last four years is destined to continue. Not true; if the economy continues to improve and we don’t get another hundred-year storm, the revenue and spending trends will reverse.
Doug Racine, head of the benighted AHS, also laid blame at the doorstep of Pelham’s former boss, Smilin’ Jim Douglas:
“When the Shumlin administration came in, we found a lot of problems, and thought that Vermonters were not getting the same quality of services they were getting previously,” Racine said.
…Racine said declining federal revenues and increasing caseloads together accounted for the rise in human services spending. In a struggling economy, he said, residents tend to rely more on state services.
“That’s the conundrum we face in human services,” said Racine. “Generally, when the [state] revenues are the lowest, the needs are the highest. … The need is great out there.”
And now, after all that, is where Pelham pulls something of a switcheroo — perhaps belatedly realizing the significance of the day on which he was speaking:
Significant human services cuts are widely expected to be unveiled in the governor’s budget later this week. Despite pointing out the 29 percent AHS budget increase as a cause for concern, Pelham said he wouldn’t necessarily back cuts to AHS.
Pelham says he prefers saving money through efficiency reforms, but cuts must remain an option.
Okay then, Tom. All we need is some magical “efficiency reforms” and we won’t need any nasty cuts after all. But I do have a question: If there are so many “efficiency reforms” to be had in the system, why in hell didn’t Governor Douglas do something in his EIGHT YEARS in office? Why blast Shumlin for failing to solve the problem in only TWO years during an economic downturn?
It’s a funny thing, I will add, about guys like Lisman who enter politics from the business world. They all believe that if we make government more efficient — if we “run government like a business” — we can avoid cuts and make services even better. Then, when they get into office, they find it ain’t so easy. And if they are forced to trim spending, they usually fall back on old tricks like across-the-board cuts or deferred maintenance.
There is no magic bullet. I can’t really blame Bruce Lisman for not realizing this; but Tom Pelham, with his long service on the front lines of government, ought to know better.
And happy King Day to you, too.