Shumlin threads the needle

Methinks Jon Margolis nailed this one:

For weeks, the chatter around state government had been about how much would have to be cut…

The answer is: less than nothing. Instead of cuts, Shumlin proposed increases for higher education, rent subsidies, transportation, child care centers, mental health services for the poor, land conservation, and cleaning up polluted lakes.

… In addition to appearing capable, Shumlin’s budget proposals displayed another – more blatantly political – attribute, one he probably wanted to project even if he may not want attention called to it. The only word to describe his program is “liberal.”

I have to agree. There’s a necessary caveat about the devil being in the details, but Shumlin’s budget address was, to me, heartening, especially compared to some of the ill-considered and ill-fated stuff in last year’s version. He managed to close a substantial budget gap and identify funding for some good new programs while kinda-sorta maintaining his no-tax pledge.

(Shumlin has a highly convenient definition of “broad-based taxes.” Indeed, sometime last spring he stopped even trying to devise a definition of the term. And this year he’s proposing an increase in what Margolis calls “a tax with a broad base”: an “assessment” on health care claims.)

(Late add: Today on the Mark Johnson Show, Human Services chief Doug Racine was explaining the Shumlin budget — which must’ve been a lot more pleasant task for Racine than it was last year. But in reference to Shumlin’s tax policy, he made a sly(?) reference to “the taxes he [Shumlin] doesn’t want to raise.” Which, coming from a top Administration official, is amazingly close to my own cynical formulation. Has Shumlin’s limited anti-tax stance become a running joke in Montpelier?)

The Governor’s budget isn’t everything I’d like to see, of course; but it’s a hell of a lot closer than I expected. I’d stlll like to see the wealthy paying their share of taxes; the 2013 House plan for trimming top-bracket deductions and lowering middle-class taxes a bit is a sound policy idea. But, as Margolis noted, there’s a lot for liberals to like. Shumlin and his Administration showed a mastery of the process in crafting this budget. After the rocky rollout of Vermont Health Connect, it’s good to see another outburst of managerial competence from the corner office.

I seem to be tempering my praise quite a bit; perhaps because I expect some blowback in the Comments. But compared to my cynical predictions, Shumlin’s budget address was a welcome surprise.  

The Republican response, OTOH, was utterly predictable. House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Grumpy) complained about increased spending and dependence on one-time and federal funds — as if every Governor, regardless of party, doesn’t pull every trick in the book when budget time comes around. And he tried to blame the increase in the state property tax on Shumlin, when he knows damn well that the tax is based on local school spending. And local voters, by and large, are appreciative of and generous toward their local schools. The system needs a fix, but it’s not Shumlin’s fault.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott laid in with some typical smiley-face dogma, sheathing his shades-of-Jim-Douglas rhetoric in a thin veneer of bipartisanship. But his main message was concern about Vermont’s economic competitiveness — the Republicans’ (and especially Douglas’) code word for “cut taxes, spending, and regulation.” Nothing new there, except that Scott continues to sharpen his partisan profile as a mainstream (not moderate) Republican.  

New party chair David Sunderland issued a predictable yammer about our “crisis of affordability” and “staggering…property tax rates” and warning of the “lurking” menace of single-payer health care. And referring to Shumlin’s party with the disparaging monicker “Democrat Party.” That’s no way to broaden your party’s appeal, Dave. Drop the nasty rhetoric. Or at least tone it down.

(The VTGOP’s webpage, by the by, is still headlined “HELP RESTORE BALANCE IN MONTPELIER.” In other words, they’re asking for electoral affirmative action: “Elect us because… well… we ought to have more seats.” That didn’t work in 2012, and it won’t work now.)

The liberals are cautiously optimistic. Haven’t seen formal comment from the Progs yet (they should feel free to chime in below), but Jack Hoffman of the Public Assets Institute (while cautioning that “deeper analysis” is called for) praised the Governor for striking “a better chord…than he did last year,” and said Shumlin “deserves credit for trying to include all Vermonters in his address.”

And that’s where I’m at today. It was a good speech; it looks like a good budget with good priorities. (Especially if you grade it on the Shumlin Curve.) Now let’s see the details. And let’s see Shumlin push the sometimes-jittery Legislature to enact a small-P progressive budget.  

10 thoughts on “Shumlin threads the needle

  1. I think that there is the key.

    When you’ve been led to expect a walloping, it feels so good when you don’t get one.

  2. Do the Vermont Democrats have any decent candidates who can take on Phil Scott this November? I’m sensing that he is vulnerable given his right wing turn recently, which does not sit well in an increasingly deep blue state.

    Cassandra Gekas ran a surprisingly strong campaign against him two years ago in spite of being a last second entry. If someone with name recognition like Doug Racine (who served in the post from 1997-2003) ran, he could potentially bring the Lieutenant Govenorship back to the Democrats.

  3. No tax increases?

    Right

    Did you check your car registration fees lately?

    It went from $60 to $70 this year.

    That is more than 15%.

    No broad based taxes. Right.

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