Dear Fellow Progressives,
On May 26th I joined thousands of other Vermonters on the Burlington waterfront to wish Bernie Sanders well as he sets off to change the political debate in our country. Vermonters seemed comfortable, even eager, for him to give it a try.
As I reflect on the 2015 legislative session that just finished in Montpelier, I am concerned that our political debate also needs to shift. We are fortunate that Montpelier still functions in a cordial, even friendly manner. And we can take comfort knowing that the debate is respectful. Still, a troubling trend has taken hold that is hard to overcome, even though many of us keep trying.
Of the 150 members of the Vermont House, only 53 are Republicans. Yet that is enough for them to shape the outcome on big issues like how we spend the $4 billion state budget. For years, conservatives have bemoaned the “spending problem” that grips Montpelier. This year, against a backdrop of a hefty budget deficit, the Democrats who control the entire process adopted their cry.
Every year that I’ve served in Montpelier we have been cutting programs.
In fact, as a percentage of the state’s GDP, tax revenue has declined (http://publicassets.org/blog/new-data-show-vermonts-problem-is-revenue-not-spending/<http://publicassets.org/blog/new-data-show-vermonts-problem-is-revenue-not-spending/>).
The budget has been growing, that is true. And so has the economy (finally). The problem we have in Montpelier, as I see it, is three-fold:
- Wages for most Vermonters have barely kept pace with inflation. Nearly all of the growth in income goes to those at the top. These families pay a smaller proportion of taxes than most of us in the middle class. Taken together this creates a challenge for the state’s revenue.
- Property taxes are too high and the school governance bill isn’t going to change that (which is why I voted against it).
- State health care spending (Medicaid) keeps climbing and eating up all the growth in our state budget. This entitlement program serves low-income Vermonters and between the Federal expansion and stagnant wages there are more people qualifying. It’s good to have people receive the health care they need but it’s costly (more on health care reform in a future post).
There were positive aspects of this session, to be sure: Universal college savings accounts is one clear example where a tiny investment will pay off down the road. Finally moving to address our water quality is another bright spot but I fear the bill lacks the enforcement we are going to need. In the House we passed a bill to give more Vermonters the right to earned sick leave. Same-day voter registration is important to a district like ours with a lot of transitional residents. This year’s energy bill sets us on a course to see more renewable power that is locally controlled. And, the revenue bill that passed is progressive and includes elements I have pushed for years.
But overall, the adoption of the “spending problem” mantra by Democratic leaders reflects a deep disconnect from the reality that median household income has declined. At a time when too many Vermonters are struggling to make ends meet, the state budget should stimulate job creation, not cut back. Sadly, several of the cuts were in areas that would have stimulated jobs and job growth.
As Vermonters cheer Bernie’s march across Iowa and New Hampshire, I hope we will save a little energy to push our own state government to more accurately reflect the economic reality experienced by most Vermonters. Our attempts to do that in Montpelier this year fell short.
Rep. Chris Pearson (Burlington)