Commentary: The Coming Administrative State (November, 2014)

by John McClaughry

John McClaughry

The Great Administrative State leads to citizen powerlessness. It will ultimately crush citizen initiative, restrict liberty, and reduce its citizens to subjects.

*          *          *

The Vermont Administrative State is again on the march.

The Administrative State is one where many functions of government are centralized and controlled by state agencies and boards, and ever fewer are retained under the democratic control of local public bodies and the people themselves.

Since 1921 Vermont has had an Administrative State for Transportation. The State took control of state and federal highways, and generally supervised town roads and streets, airports and railroads.

This centralization has generally been noncontroversial. The state’s highway system is clearly a public good, and most of the financing flows from state and federal coffers.  Everyone agrees that the State has every right to license those who use the highways, and to tax vehicle owners and motor fuel users to maintain the system.

The first modern attempt to enlarge the Administrative State failed. In 1970 the legislature enacted the development control law, Act 250. The newly appointed Environmental Board was tasked with creating a Land Use Plan setting forth how every acre of the state could and should be used in the public interest.

Vermonters balked. It was one thing to have the State control the high end of the transportation system.  It was quite another to have a state Environmental Board control the allowed uses of all private land. From 1973 to 1976 citizens waged a heated battle against the State Land Use Plan, until its last weakened version quietly disappeared in the senate. In 1984 the legislature repealed the requirement that there even be such a plan. What remains of the original Act 250 are the permit criteria requirements for larger developments.

Gov. Kunin’s 1988 effort to revive state-enforced land use planning – in her words “uniform in standard, specific in requirements, and tough on delinquents” – led to Act 200. But her longed-for state land controls faded away soon after passage, when 128 towns adopted resolutions condemning the scheme.

The next leap forward came in 1997 with Act 60, which gave sweeping but not complete powers to the State Board of Education and (now) Agency of Education. Now there is a new proposal for going the rest of the way into the full-bore Administrative State for Education (see below).

In 2011 single payer health care activists, led by new Gov. Peter Shumlin, finally succeeded in creating the Administrative State for Health Care. When Green Mountain Care appears (supposedly in 2017), it will abolish private health insurance, and allocate all health care through the appointed Green Mountain Care Board. It will ensure “appropriate care at the appropriate time in the appropriate setting”. The Board will of course ration that care to keep spending within the amount that can be extracted from taxpayers.

Last month came the latest proposal to create the ultimate Administrative State for Education. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, not heretofore known for his bold pronouncements on public issues, advocated creating the equivalent of the Green Mountain Care Board “to help rein in school spending costs and control education property taxes.”

Scott said his autonomous board of experts could control school budgets, adjust property tax rates, and force consolidations. At least by implication, it could take any action it saw fit to flatten out rising public school spending.

Interestingly, Scott’s Progressive opponent Dean Corren, an ardent supporter of the Administrative State for Health Care, called Scott’s all-powerful Board a “total state takeover”. Even Gov. Shumlin chimed in with this support for local control : “One of the worst ideas that we can endeavor is telling local communities that we’re gonna take away their power to choose what they’re gonna spend on education on town meeting day. That’s a basic right of Vermonters.”

It’s not likely that Scott will press forward with this ill-conceived brainchild, but there will ever be new proposals to centralize all power in the State. That is the central goal of modern (post-1912) Progressivism: put everything possible under the centralized control of enlightened experts, order ignorant and selfish citizens and their local governments to do their bidding, and extract the needed funds from taxpayers helpless to resist the power of the Great Administrative State. And if the disgruntled citizens are restive, restrict their political rights to make sure they cannot effectively resist.

The Great Administrative State leads to citizen powerlessness. It will ultimately crush citizen initiative, restrict liberty, and reduce its citizens to subjects.

Free Vermonters need to say: Not here. Not now. Not ever.

–  John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (

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