Liberally Speaking1/22/09

Vermont's New Year's resolutions

Jan. 22, 2009

By Steve Mount

It is time for our state government to make its New Year’s resolutions. Our constitution mandates that legislators meet on the first Wednesday after the first Monday in January, every other year. Of course, they end up meeting every year — the age of the true biennial legislature is long gone.

Though it took some time to catch up to Vermont, the bad economic times the nation is feeling are here. Layoffs are happening as we speak and most of us took marked hits when the stock and housing markets tanked.

With this atmosphere, the governor and the Legislature have to be ready to make tough choices, choices that will affect all of us.

The new speaker of the house, Shap Smith of Lamoille, said he was borrowing a page from former Gov. Dick Snelling’s book when he proposed a new stimulus plan. On opening day, Smith was elected speaker and wasted no time in proposing a $150 million plan to bolster the Vermont economy by investing in infrastructure.

To pay for this, Smith would borrow $30 million and finance the rest in bonds, to be funded by higher gas taxes, or something else, a detail to be worked out by Legislative committees. The main point, though — to get Vermonters working, and to have that work produce something tangible and long-lasting — seems sound.

Before we start thinking seriously about a stimulus package, however, we need to think about the forecasted budget shortfall. The revenue shortfall is expected to be $27 million this year. Cuts are planned, but even so, projections are for $21 million in unexpected expenses.

Gov. Jim Douglas has an interesting idea to help fill the hole — federal funds. Douglas says that Vermont should be getting $58 million in the form of extra Medicare reimbursement that the state could use to cover the $48 million shortfall, and have $10 million left over for next year’s predicted shortfall.

The cuts, of course, are going to affect real people. One of the cuts is to the VPharm program, which helps elderly Vermonters with prescription costs. Another is to the Medicaid dental program, limiting covered expenses to $200 instead of $495. Unfortunately, these kinds of cuts are hard to make, since they affect the poorest of us, but it seems like there is little alternative.

Of particular interest to me, and to many across the state, is the governor’s plan to ask that school budget votes be delayed past Town Meeting Day, as part of his plan to freeze education spending. Floated as a trial balloon by an aide, the plan seems to me to be a bad idea. School boards need to know their budgets as soon as possible — and if a budget is defeated, more time is needed to craft cuts for a new vote. Plus, if we’re looking to save money, an off-schedule vote for just the school budget is an obvious waste of money.

All this talk of budgets, revenue, cuts and taxes is exhausting. The machinations that are contrived to move funds from here to there, hopefully trimming slim percentages off as it goes, boggle my non-accounting-oriented mind. My biggest hope is that we get quick agreement from experts on the issues and get it done.

Easier for me to process are some of the other legislative proposals that have been advanced. Prompted by the Brooke Bennett case, the Senate has proposed a bill that features the addition of a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for the crime of aggravated sexual assault of a child. I’m not a big fan of mandatory minimums, but I’m willing to set my general objections aside for this particular crime.

One of the Senate’s other bills would extend employment protection to volunteer firefighters, similar to that which members of the National Guard enjoy. Another would strengthen Vermont’s employee protections for testimony given to the Legislature or for serving on a jury.

In the House, one bill is specific to Williston, approving charter changes approved by us at the November election. Another changes fuel taxes to fuel fees, and raises the fee by 6 cents per gallon; the changes help make it easier to implement Speaker Smith’s bonding idea. One more permits the state to seize and sell the car of any person convicted of a DUI with death or injury resulting, even on a first offense.

Hopefully, the Legislature and the governor will work together and agree on reasoned solutions to our state’s problems. I’ll be keeping my eye on them.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.