Commentary: A Sensible Agenda for Vermont Democrats (December, 2018)

By John McClaughry

Vermont’s Republican governor can no longer expect to have a veto sustained by one third of either body, at least on any issue of crucial importance to the political base of the Democratic/Prog legislative leadership.

What, then, would be the best possible outcome of the next two years? To some – like the Progs – the “best” outcome would be to pass dozens of liberal proposals, dare Gov. Scott to veto them, and if he takes the dare, override his veto and triumphantly enact them into law.

Not being partial to the Prog agenda, my version of “best” is an outcome that would preserve the state’s solvency and bond rating, restrain spending growth, stimulate economic opportunity, deal responsibly with environmental issues, and improve the workings of state government. These are all things that Vermont’s Democrats generally affirm, if the “cost containment” promoted by Governors Dean and Shumlin is interpreted as restraining spending growth.

The Democrats will assuredly re-pass the $15 minimum wage and some form of paid parental leave, both of which Gov. Scott vetoed. Beyond those two measures demanded by Democratic supporters, here are some other steps the leadership could take that would, I believe, win considerable approbation.

First, balance the budget without increasing the rates of broad based taxes. To Vermont’s credit, both its Republicans and Democrats have been commendably supportive of balancing the budget, and have avoided income and sales tax rate increases since 2003.

Second, the 2018 Democratic platform declared that the Party “opposes fiscally irresponsible policies such as the underfunding of pension obligations”. Reducing the shocking ($4.5 billion!) unfunded liabilities of the two major retirement systems would strengthen the state’s bond rating and improve the financial future of state employees and teachers, to whose unions their Party is heavily indebted.

Third, reexamine the All-Payer health care financing system set in motion after Gov. Shumlin’s Green Mountain Care collapsed in 2014. Many liberals see All-Payer as a way station to eventual single payer enactment, but others are becoming increasingly concerned about the creation of a gigantic bureaucratic health machine (One Care ), feebly regulated by the State, collecting $900 million dollars to deliver high quality care ever mindful of government-imposed budget restrictions.

Even single payer enthusiasts like Hamilton Davis, Dr. Deb Richter, Dr. Bob Holland, and chief health care advocate Mike Fisher are voicing warnings about where all this is headed, as are numerous independent doctors and notably Senate President Tim Ashe. Since the regulation of OneCare is the duty of a board appointed by a Republican governor, the Democrats have little incentive to ignore its weaknesses and missteps.

Fourth, Democrats motivated by the urgent need to defeat the menace of climate change will want to make Vermont the first state in the nation to enact a carbon tax on gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, heating oil, and propane. Gov. Scott, though a member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, has nonetheless vowed to veto a carbon tax. The Democrats could pass a carbon tax bill and watch him use his veto to strengthen his approval ratings among thousands of Vermont homeowners, motorists, and businesses.

Pushing through a carbon tax would probably not be a good idea, especially for Democratic legislators from rural and small town Vermont. The Democrats could more wisely settle for unenforceable proclamations that “90% of all energy must be from renewables by 2050!” (or else what?), and perhaps a few modest steps like facilitating more charging stations for electric vehicles.

Fifth, the Democrats should forget that in 2014 they advocated replacing the residential school property tax with higher income tax rates. As happy as that replacement would make property tax payers, the consequences of the far higher income tax rates would be shattering to the economy.

Finally, the Democrats ought to revive their platform pledge of 2004 to conduct a “top-to-bottom ‘performance review’ of the functions of state government… to find creative, smart new ways to make government run more efficiently on the resources we have.”

Since then there have been two worthless bipartisan efforts (Challenge for Change and GRORC).  The Democrats would do well to emulate the Texas Performance Review created by then-Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat who is now chancellor at Texas A&M.

In addition, the Democrats should continue bipartisan efforts to find workable policies to curb opioid abuse and to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain. They should also restrain themselves from legislating more invasions of liberty, such as the fine for not buying health insurance, mandatory seatbelt penalties, and any of Gun Sense Vermont’s proposed solutions to “gun violence”.

A conscious effort to produce these outcomes, while burying some of the wilder ideas of the Prog-Sanderista faction, would likely well position Democratic legislators to appeal to voters again in 2020.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg Ranallo December 31, 2018 at 5:20 pm

I agree with almost everything above. As a business owner a $15 minimum wage would not effect me, all of my employees make more than that, what it would do is weed out the poorly run exploitative businesses in favor of the more well run.
Rather than a carbon tax on fuel I think we should have a carbon sales tax. If someone wants to buy a gas guzzling SUV or other low mileage vehicle they can put the environmental cost in purchase price. This can be applied to a lot of our choices. Currently the economy does not reflect the external costs of our purchases making it difficult for the average joe to make an informed decision.
Last car inspections, I believe, are an unnecessary drag on our economy. There is virtually no difference in safety between states that have inspections and those that don’t. It takes cars away from working class people and students just trying to get by. How many Vermonters are injured each year by small rust holes, disk rust ridges, or frames breaking from rust? My uneducated guess is zero. Overall, nationally mechanical contributions to accidents runs about 4%.

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Deanne January 2, 2019 at 1:42 am

Sometimes I think this slow slide down the drain is too stressful. Maybe the current majority should just do everything they think they want at one fell swoop, and then see what the consequences of their utopia are in five years. People just don’t seem to get why the policies the majority in Vermont seem to want are bad for everyone. It seems like they need to learn the hard way.

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Karen January 7, 2019 at 3:57 pm

After voting for the Democratic party too many years since 1993, I finally came to terms with the fact that I have no say in anything they do. So, in 2016, I voted Republican and am finally feeling, seeing, and enjoying the change I had hoped for.
I’m certain the Democratic party is reacting out of fear. They are talkers, vehicle drivers, however, they do not walk the walk.

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