I have a lot of news to share; many interesting things from today’s Dueling Pressers — the Progressives announcing an alternative revenue plan, and Gov. Shumlin’s weekly news conference. I want to give more detail on the Progs’ plan, which shifts the new-revenue burden onto high earners and gives a very convincing rationale for doing so. I’ve also got material for a look at the overall impact of the Shumlin tax plan on the working poor.
Can’t do all that tonight. So I’m going to start with one simple thing.
My God, the Governor was a real schmuck today.
Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, good moments and bad. The Governor has a lot of strengths, and there are a lot of things I like about him. Today, though…
A bit of background first. Shumlin had gone several weeks in a row holding his weekly “news conference” at a remote site — a groundbreaking here, a major announcement there, a politically convenient background everywhere. As a result, the actual “news conferences” were relatively brief stand-ups. In the meantime, a hell of a lot has been going on, and there was lots to ask the Governor about. Plus, most of us had just attended the Progs’ presser, so we were focused on the widespread criticism of Shumlin’s tax plans. We were ready to pounce.
But the Governor wanted to focus today’s presser on a new, and laudable-sounding, higher-education initiative. In brief, he wants to make it much easier for high school students to take college-level courses — and even earn as much as one full year’s worth of credits while still in high school. And he managed to get all the relevant stakeholders on board: teachers, college administrators, public educators, and business leaders who would facilitate improved internship and apprenticeship programs. He had an all-star cast on hand to pump up the announcement.
In short, his expectations and ours were at odds. Made things a little tense.
To start with, Shumlin didn’t just promote this higher-education initiative; he sought to tie his entire package of education, welfare, and tax plans into one single, indissoluble entity. “If you pull one leg out from under the plan,” he insisted, “the whole thing falls apart.”
In my mind, and in the minds of many others, he hasn’t made that case. Why does “the whole thing fall apart” if you find a different funding source for preschool child care, or if you don’t set a lifetime cap on Reach Up benefits? When he insists on the whole plan or nothing, he comes across as arrogant: only he has the Secret Plan, no one else has any better ideas, and he will brook no deviation.
Well, heck, that’s kinda-sorta not how representative democracy works. You propose, the Legislature disposes. And they can make changes if they see fit. That’s the truth, even if your idea IS actually the greatest thing since penicillin.
Early in the Q&A portion, I dared to float a notion: Is part of the Governor’s aversion to “broad-based tax increases” a way of garnering the business community’s participation? Here’s where the Condescender In Chief went into action:
You know… I probably speak to more Vermonters than most Vermonters. I spend my days on the road, listing, and I learn a lot from listening. And I know that when yo get in the bubble of this building, you may not believe this is true, but I have yet to have a Vermonter come up to me and say, “You know, Governor, I believe our biggest problem is that our taxes are not high enough. Can you go out and raise them?” The truth is, we have a very thoughtful tax policy in Vermont, the most thoughtful in the country. We ask our wealthiest residents to pay the most, we ask our poorest residents to pay the least, we all pay and we pay plenty.
1: Set up straw man. 2: Knock him down. 3: Do little victory jig.
My view is, and the majority of Vermonters agree with me, don’t raise taxes, take the money we’re spending and spend it in a smarter way so we get a bigger bang for our buck. Make government smarter, more efficient. We can do that. We don’t have to ask Vermonters who are struggling to recover form the worst recession in our history to pay more taxes.
Uh, Governor? That’s exactly what you’re doing — asking “struggling Vermonters” to shoulder more of the burden. The Progs are doing quite the opposite: seeking to raise revenue from Vermonters who are not struggling at all. Indeed, as your own tax department’s figures prove, those top-earning Vermonters have thrived during “the worst recession in our history.”
It wasn’t just the words, it was his tone. He’d make little exasperated noises. He’d talk low and slow, as if telling a toddler why she can’t have a cookie. And, of course, he’d completely evade the actual question with his practiced straw-man arguments.
Next, Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz pointed out that he hadn’t heard a single legislative leader express support for Shumlin’s plan to cut the state’s share of the Earned Income Tax Credit to fund child care. Shumlin’s answer left no room for contrary points of view:
Here’s what I can tell you. I firmly believe that my plan to move Vermonters from poverty to prosperity is absolutely dependent on finding a smarter way to spend the Earned Income Tax Credit dollars that we’re already spending, and get rid of the cliff that forces people on welfare to stay on welfare, in the insidious, cruel system that tells mostly-single moms when they go get a job, that if you take the job, or you take a dollar raise, we take your benefits from you to the degree that you’ve gotta go back on welfare. Now, I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s compassionate. On Valentine’s Day, that doesn’t speak to my heart. And it doesn’t speak to may Vermonters’ hearts.
Huh boy. The folks who want to hold the working poor harmless are the cruel ones! And how dare they be so mean on the holiday that celebrates love! He wrapped up his answer by predicting that, by the end of the legislative session, lawmakers will see the wisdom of his approach.
His proposed five-year lifetime cap on Reach Up benefits would take effect in October, and would be retroactive. Those who have already received five years’ worth of benefits will be immediately cut off. I asked Shumlin if it wouldn’t be more compassionate to phase in the cap. His non-answer:
I think the fairest thing we can do is take a system that locks you in poverty, that locks you in welfare, that doesn’t allow you to have a professional career when you want to put your kids in child care, is the cruelest system we could have. And the faster we can move from that, the more compassionate we’ll be.
Black is white. Hot is cold. Cutting off benefits is compassion, and continuing benefits is cruel. And we have always been at war with Eastasia.
When asked if there wasn’t a better way to impose the Reach Up cut, this is the non-answer we got:
Listen, this is what I can tell ya. You’re not going to find a Governor or an administration or a Secretary of the Agency of Human Resources in the form of Doug Racine, or commissioners in the form of David Yacavone and others, or a Secretary of Education, whoa re more committed to being a compassionate state with a heart that helps to ensure that everybody has economic opportunity.
We are nice people. We are wise people. We know better than you. Stop questioning us!
I hope he can be a bit more persuasive — and a lot more open to other ideas — when he gets into serious talks with the Legislature. He might just have to (horrors!) accept 90% of his plan instead of the whole thing. Is that too heavy a cross for the Governor to bear?