Commentary: Bernie Begs the Question… (May, 2015)

By Rob RoperRob Roper

Love him or hate him, one has to concede that Bernie Sanders has had a tremendous impact on the political direction of Vermont over the past quarter century plus. His influence has reverberated throughout the Green Mountains and in our State House. He has had spawned many acolytes in the activist community and in the halls of power.

Over his political career, Sanders has been remarkably consistent with his democratic/socialist, populist message, which he now wants to bring to the national stage in a run for president.  A major theme for “Bernie 2016” will be the consequences of rising income inequality. This begs the question, what has Bernie Sanders done for income inequality here in Vermont? What does his long legacy of helping the little guy by taking on big corporations and “the rich” in his home state really look like?

Two studies shed some light on the answer.

New England Has the Highest Increase in Income Disparity in the Nation (2007) by Ross Gittell and Jason Rudokas of the Carsey Institute of the University of New Hampshire states that since 1992, two years after Sanders was first elected to congress,

Three states in the region—Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts—ranked among the top five in income disparity increases. Over the last 15 years [1992-2007],… Vermont went from being a low income-disparity state to a median disparity state.

Not good! A more recent study (2014), The Demograpy of Inequality in the United States, by Mark Mather and Beth Jarosz, concludes:

 …since 1999, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin experienced the largest increases in inequality. [Emphasis added]

Also not good! In other words, since Bernie Sanders became a political force, spreading his unique brand of politics across Vermont, income inequality in our state has gone from an insignificant problem to one of the most striking examples of the phenomenon in the nation. That is the record.

Some might try to argue that these are state issues and Sanders is a national politician. However, Sanders’ real influence has been far greater in Montpelier than in Washington D.C.

Though he does not call himself a Progressive, Sanders gave rise to the Progressive Party in Vermont when he ran for Burlington Mayor in 1981. The Progressives became an official, major political party in 1999. Today’s Progressive Senate Caucus Leader, Anthony Pollina (P-Washington), was Sanders’ policy advisor from 1991-1996, and the House Progressive Caucus Leader, Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), also got his start on Sanders’ political team. These are just the most high profile Sanders protégés, but there are many more peppered throughout the political landscape. Robert Millar, a recent Executive Director for the Progressive Party, was office manager for Sanders’ 2012 campaign. He left to be an activist consultant, then ran for local public office. That’s the pattern.

As a result, since Sanders was elected to Congress in 1990, Vermont has adopted a number of “small p” progressive policies, heralded at passage as “historic.” The legislature mandated Guaranteed Issue and Community Rating for health insurance (1991 and 1992). Around this time the state began to break away from the federal minimum wage and, over time, has come to mandate some of the highest entry-level wages in the country. Vermont passed Act 60 (1997) for financing our education system, and with its “income sensitivity” provisions, making it the most progressive property tax structure in the country. On top of that, Vermont now spends more per pupil on K-12 education than any other state, and just won recognition for doing more than any other state in regard to providing access to universal pre-k (Act 62, 2006). Vermont has moved aggressively toward providing government-subsidized healthcare for all with Act 48 (2011).  We have created one of, if not the, most progressive income tax structures in the country, and, arguably, provide the most generous social welfare benefits.

From 1856 to 1988, Vermont voted Republican in every presidential election except one. Since then, Bernie Sanders and his followers have pulled the state to the left, earning Vermont the reputation as one of the most liberal in the nation (Gallup, 2012). The net result of this progressive, spread-the-wealth, Sanders-inspired policy drift: We have done serious damage to our middle class, our young and educated population is fleeing, and the income inequality problem in Vermont appears to be among the worst in the nation.

I certainly hope Bernie Sanders attracts serious attention in his bid for the Democratic nomination for president. It’s time that his legacy of democratic/socialist and Progressive policy in Vermont gets the scrutiny it deserves from the national press, and the candidate is forced for the first time in his career to answer some hard questions. Now that would be a bit of social justice.

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Matthew Yorzinski May 27, 2015 at 11:49 am

You don’t have a strong argument when you blame income disparity on the third party, the party in the clear minority.

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Rob May 27, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Thanks for the comment, Matthew. What’s to “blame” (if that’s the right word) is the thirty year drift to the political left in Vermont. Many are saying that Bernie will be good for the Democrats because he will “pull Hillary to the left” even if he doesn’t win. That’s what he’s done in Vermont with tremendous success. Bernie has pulled the state to the left. The rise and growth of the Progressive Party in Vermont — founded on Bernie’s mayoral campaign — is a big and growing part of that drift. Though progressives are a minority party, they (and Bernie) have been successful in pushing their policies on a majority. The democratic party, for example, is much more “progressive” than it was before the Progressives started pulling them to the left. The policies Vermont has put into place over the past 30 years are ideologically progressive — guaranteed issue/community rating, Act 60 and a progressive/income sensitized property tax system, universal pre-k, Act 48 and single payer (now “all-payer”) healthcare, a highly progressive income tax, a higher-than-national minimum wage, etc. True, Bernie didn’t vote for any of this directly, and Progressive majorities didn’t put them into place, but they and the political movement they have ushered in are at the root of why these policies exist in our state.

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Jim Bulmer May 29, 2015 at 9:34 pm

Unless and until Vermonters wake up to the fact that all these well meaning, do good, Bernie type activities are litterally killing what Vermont once offered, we’re DOOMED. I just hope and pray that the Progressives are not so well entrenched that there is no way out. Even the solar panel movemevnt (which, incidently would be a wipe out if it we’re for tax payer funded subsidies) is proceeding to destroy one of the few appeals left, and that’s our receding pristine views. STEP UP silent majority!!!

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Mark Donka June 2, 2015 at 1:20 am

Jim,
I do not think it is to late. Vermonters are getting tired of being taxed out of their homes. The only way to change is in the voting booth. We can do this, but we all need to work together. We need to talk to our friends,family and neighbors anyone who will listen. They need to know all is not lost if we band together. We can make Vt that strong conservative fiscally responsible state once again.

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Michael Benoit June 3, 2015 at 11:15 pm

This is very interesting. I agree you really can not blame Bernie personally. The move to the left is not something that can be argued. The impact that has had on middle income Vermonters in unmistakable. People in the middle are being completely squeezed, and the folks who are trying to “help” are doing most of the squeezing. I am wondering if the disparity is really being exacerbated by the fleeing from this state of the middle class? The middle earners and young entrepreneurs not wanting to stay, or being forced out due to the ridiculous tax and regulation crunch must leaves a huge whole in our economy. Right? I mean what do we have left? The very rich and the unmobile poor and some folks who seem to be making there way somehow…? One example of the insurance community rating made a huge impact on the VT community. I remember very clearly when I was young My fathers insurance for our family went through the roof, and many small independent insurance companies closed and eventually we were left with the two we have today. What is the rate of inflation on health insurance in VT since the passing of that bill. I bet it is higher then wages are going up! In the name of making everything “fair” they made this state significantly more expensive to live in, and much less competitive in attracting, and keeping businesses to this state. And, raising taxes on the rich is not necessarily going to force them to leave, they are rich, if they really want to live here they will pay. The progressives, liberals, democrats have been raising taxes, and adding costs for businesses for decades. People like myself have seen nothing but rising costs and stagnant pay. If our children were not in highschool we would have already left VT. I have friends who left VT, they have twice the house I have, with a lawn, and paid $100,000 less then I did and there taxes are less than a quarter of what I pay. If the Democrats and the rest of the left think this is a recipe for keeping young people and the middle class in this state then we need a new Chef!

The one thing I hope to see out of a Bernie candacy is that I know (love or hate his policies) he is honest, and like Rob said he has had the same policies for a long time now. We know where he stands. If there is anything we need in a presidential campaign it is honesty. I really do not think that Bernie will allow this campaign, while he is in it, to be dictated by the BS that so much of us hate. I have seen him call out Dem’s and Rep’s alike. This country needs some honesty and less BS questions, and real answers to real questions. I do not embrace all his policies but that matters to me less than honesty. Candidates say great things on stage and completely bail once in office. All of them have proven themselves untrustworthy. I simply want to trust what comes out of peoples mouths, and I want someone to call people on their BS.

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