Oh, it was a happy day in Barre, as local and state officials put the “dig” in “dignitary” at the groundbreaking for City Place, the new office/retail building on Main Street. (If Jim Douglas earned the nickname “Governor Scissorhands” for his frequent attendance at ribbon-cuttings, could we call his successor “Shovelin’ Shumlin” for his eager participation at groundbreakings?)
There were speeches, congratulations, and lots of back-slapping to mark the occasion, which was legitimately momentous for the city of Barre. City Place will bring hundreds of office workers to the heart of downtown, meaning plenty of new business for downtown shops, restaurants, and a certain gentlemen’s establishment.
But those of us in the jaded Statehouse media corps were mostly there to grab a few minutes with the Governor, since this event was in the time slot set aside for Shumlin’s weekly news conference. And he did give us a fair bit of time, standing outdoors on a disconcertingly warm midwinter day of the kind that never used to happen in Vermont before global warming, cough.
Shumlin did his usual ducking and dodging and sticking to his (bolt-action) guns. On a few key issues, there was an interesting combination of holding firm to principle while also leaving some wiggle room. Highlights:
— He stood his ground on broad-based tax hikes — and took it one step further.
— He offered a more nuanced definition of “broad-based taxes.”
— He refused to consider alternatives to his proposed cut in the Earned Income Tax Credit to fund improved child care for the working poor.
— He also brushed off criticism of the proposed transition to the health care exchange, and insisted that no Vermonter would be too badly hurt.
— He offered conditional support for President Obama’s gun control package.
Details after the jump.
Acceptable and unacceptable tax hikes. Some (induing yrs truly) have questioned Shumlin’s definition of “broad-based taxes” — why, for example, does “rooms and meals” qualify while a gas-tax increase would not? Well, his more nuanced but no more convincing definition went like this:
When I refer to broad-based taxes, I am talking about the general fund, not the transportation fund, and I am talking about taxes that support the general fund, which happen to be income, sales, and rooms and meals.
Which leaves him plenty of room to impose new taxes for special purposes and increase taxes that don’t go to the general fund — even if the taxes are extremely broad-based. But it closes the door on many of our more progressive forms of taxation.
He also took a step further in his opposition to tax increases he doesn’t like. Some lawmakers have been talking about trimming tax deductions and other “tax expenditures” rather than raising tax rates — but Shumlin isn’t buying.
As I’ve said many times, Vermont’s biggest challenge is not that our taxes are not high enough, it is that they are too high. …Now they can call it something else, like playing with deductions — you’re asking people to pay more income tax, and I’m not willing to do that.
That EITC cut. Many lawmakers, up to and including House Speaker Shap Smith, have balked at Shumlin’s proposal to shift some funds out of the Earned Income Tax Credit to pay for more generous child-care benefits for the working poor. Shumlin took a hard line today:
I feel very strongly that the education package for prosperity is just that — a package. And we need to pass every part of the package. … And if you pull one leg out from under it, it falls apart. If you don’t do the Earned Income Tax Credit reinvestment — it’s not a cut, it’s reinvesting the same dollars with the same population but putting them to better use.
Health care exchange. When the exchange opens on 1/1/14, the Catamount and VHAP programs will, by federal mandate, end. The transition would hit some Vermonters with higher premiums. Shumlin’s budget was said to include enough money to “hold them harmless.” But as it turns out, that’s not really true: everyone would be “held harmless” on insurance premiums, but some Vermonters (especially those between 200-300% of the federal poverty level) would be liable for much higher out-of-pocket costs. If they stay healthy, they come out ahead; but if they have significant illness, they’d have to pay more.
The Governor today tried to limit the damage, by (a) shifting the blame to the feds, and (b) trying to explain how this really won’t hurt anyone – -at least not too badly.
I don’t think they’re going to be hit “pretty hard.” I think the package that we came up with will ensure that the federal bill that is less generous than our current plan will make sure that no one is asked to stretch beyond their ability to pay.
He added that someone would “have to have pretty extraordinary circumstances” to face a big increase in medical bills under the exchange. Which is almost reassuring, no?
Gun control. Shumlin reiterated his desire for a 50-state solution, and he qualified his previously stated support for President Obama’s proposal for an assault-weapons ban:
Depending on how they define an assault weapon. One of my concerns is that they’ve got a bunch of city boys down there trying to define an assault weapon. …And some of the definitions of assault weapon I’ve seem coming up in Washington would impinge on a Vermont sportsman’s ability to use the weapons they’re currently using. I don’t think that’s smart.
He also addressed a gun-control measure proposed by State Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson. He stopped short of a veto threat, but he made it clear he doesn’t want new state law — he wants only federal action.