The anti-poverty hokey-pokey, part 1

There’s been a lot of activity in the Legislature on efforts to help the working poor and fine-tune social services programs. Some of it’s positive; some of it is dismayingly timid. And some of it is — surprise, surprise! — more political than programmatic.

The most obvious two-step (or three-card monte, if you prefer) has come on raising Vermont’s minimum wage and establishing mandatory paid sick leave. That’s the subject of this diary; in Part 2, I’ll get to a trio of bills aimed at improving the state’s response to poverty.

At the beginning of the 2014 session, there was a lot of support for sick leave, but little or no visible momentum behind a minimum wage hike.

Fast forward to last week — Crossover Week for legislation to earn passage in the House or Senate, and a convenient kill date for any unwanted bills — and there was Governor Shumlin giving a hearty endorsement to raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over the next three years. (While taking back part of the increase by eliminating inflation adjustments for the three-year period.) Awfully late to be pushing a top priority, and a surprising turnaround for a guy who, in December, gave minimum-wage the official Shumlin Kiss Of Death in a meeting with Senate Democrats:

“I’m willing to enter into any conversation about ways to ensure we have an equitable minimum wage,” he told the senators. Then came the predictable: “Obviously with everything we do, the devil is always in the details.”

Which is what he always says when he means, “I’m against it and will do what I can to kill it.” Indeed, “willing to enter into conversation” and “the devil is in the details” are two phrases in my Peter Shumlin News Conference Drinking Game, along with pet phrases like “grow jobs and economic prosperity for Vermonters” and “hardworking Vermonters” and “I don’t hear any Vermonters pleading with me to raise their taxes.” It’d be a fun game, and it’d result in much shorter pressers, since all the reporters would be completely hammered by the 15-minute mark. Next time, bring your flasks, fellas!

But I digress, surely I do.

The genesis of this Seismic Shummy Shift was outlined in last week’s Seven Days by Alicia Freese, subbing for Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz and — maybe, possibly — becoming the first woman to write the paper’s weekly political column? Freese chronicled Shumlin’s apparent falling in line behind President Obama’s call for an increase in the federal minimum wage — perhaps a political necessity for the head of the Democratic Governors Association.

Shumlin’s endorsement of the wage hike – followed by his declaration that Vermont would go it alone even if other states back down – blindsided many back home.

… “The governor hasn’t expressed that desire to me,” said Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), referring to the minimum wage proposal.

… “We knew it was out there, but the focus and attention and debate and vote counting by leadership has all been on paid sick leave up to this point,” said Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers’ Association, a group that opposes both pieces of legislation.

Harrison’s expression of surprise is a tad disingenuous, since he and his allies had gotten a heads-up on minimum wage on February 27. As reported by the Freeploid’s Terri Hallenbeck on March 3,

A group of store owners gathered Thursday in the Statehouse, where they heard from the state’s top power brokers. They had an audience, one after the other, with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, Gov. Peter Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell.

The store owners were worried about three items: sick leave, minimum wage, and a bill to establish a tax on single-use shopping bags.

What they got in response, in between some of the usual fluff, was some pretty good intel about what to expect from the Legislature this year. Namely: The bag tax is a long shot, paid sick leave is pretty much dead, but raising the minimum wage is for real.

Hallenbeck quoted Shumlin as saying “I know you’re not going to agree with me… but I do want a higher minimum wage.” She also got a dismayed reaction quote from Jim Harrison. So he knew about the minimum-wage push long before he reacted with fresh dismay on March 10. As did, I have to imagine, Kevin Mullin and everyone else under the Dome.

But my larger point about all this is: it’s an obvious effort by top Dems to placate the business community by whacking paid sick leave in favor of a minimum wage increase.

(This is why I had such a strong reaction to Speaker Smith’s assertions that “the landscape [isn’t] right at the moment” to pass the sick-leave bill. Earlier in the session, there were strong indications that the bill had broad support; now the Speaker claims he can’t carry it across the goal line. Which comes conveniently after he and his fellow leaders gave assurances to store owners that the sick-leave bill was “pretty much dead.” I smell a backroom deal.)

My question is, why not both? It’s not like the Dems will face an electoral challenge anytime soon.

One of my pet peeves about Vermont’s political leadership is their temporizing and moderating and apparent timidity, even as they enjoy the closest thing to political dominance this side of Vladimir Putin. When I look at what conservative Republicans are doing in states where they have majorities — even much slimmer majorities — it makes me wish for a liberal Democrat to take the same approach as a Scott Walker or Rick Snyder or Bobby Jindal: leveraging political power to move the state significantly to the left, instead of being all incremental all the time.

Besides, if the business groups weren’t so short-sighted, they’d be okay with a minimum wage increase. Each of them takes a tiny hit, to be sure; but they all benefit from the fact that the working poor actually have more money in their pockets. They won’t be socking that money away in their Cayman Islands accounts; they’ll be spending it — whad’ya know — at their local grocery stores!

Recent economic research has also found that a higher minimum wage — whad’ya know — reduces workforce turnover, which means lower expenses on training and recruitment.

But no, our esteemed Wise Men of Business can’t see beyond their next payroll day.

But I digress, again. My point is, it’s nice to see the sudden support for a long-overdue hike in the minimum wage, but it’s depressing to see the sick-leave tradeoff. We’re facing big structural problems, and this incremental approach (while more politically palatable in the short run) is not going to cut it.

Next time, in part 2 of The Anti-Poverty Hokey Pokey, I’ll look at the uncertain prospects for some legislation aimed at solving some problems in our social safety net.  

One thought on “The anti-poverty hokey-pokey, part 1

  1. And as for your drinking game, I have my own favorite “Shumlinism” from the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.  

    Every second sentence from his lips seemed to be “I have a plan for that.”

    He had a plan for healthcare, of course; but he also had a “plan” for early childhood education; prison reform; energy efficiency…just about any progressive initiative you could name except raising revenue the old fashioned way.

    He had a “plan” for avoiding that.

    In 2010, Shumlin was the man with a “plan.”

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