Right to the Point (5/28/09)

Disappointing 2009 legislative session

May 28, 2009

By Mike Benevento

Earlier this month, the Vermont Legislature concluded its somewhat disappointing 2009 session. Sadly, the Democrat-led body appeared at times to be more interested in promoting an activist liberal agenda than creating a sustainable budget.

The Legislature started on the right path by passing a child predator bill. Sadly, it took 12-year-old Brooke Bennett’s rape and slaying for the Legislature to adopt a stronger law against sex offenders. Among other provisions, S.13 creates a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence for aggravated sexual assault of a child.

In an issue with a local twist, the Legislature approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim McCullough of Williston to study alternatives to chloramine. Because some residents have complained that the disinfectant causes health problems, H.80 uses federal money to study other options for treating water supplies.

There is little doubt that House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate leader Peter Shumlin did not let a declining worldwide economy stand in their way. They came to Montpelier with their own agenda — confident they had a veto-proof majority to get it done.

As time went on, it appeared that the two leaders did not listen to what the majority of Vermonters wanted. Instead of focusing on the most important issues — the economy and the budget — they pushed the Legislature to pursue a liberal agenda.

While most Vermonters grew increasingly concerned about the economy, Democrats took action elsewhere. Shumlin sponsored S.115, a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry. Despite relatively little discussion, the Legislature voted to legalize such civil marriages. Although polls show the majority of Vermonters do not favor same-sex marriage, the state Legislature overrode Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto — making it the law starting Sept. 1.

The liberal agenda continued to be on display when the Legislature authorized S.125. Besides expanding the sex offender registry, the bill creates a juvenile crime when teens electronically send explicit photos. Of course, the “sexting” part of the bill drew nation-wide criticism. As the Republican leaders noted, “Your job may be in jeopardy, but your 13-year-old daughter will be able to text a pornographic video of herself to her 18-year-old boyfriend with no worries.”

Perhaps because liberal causes distracted the Legislature, it did not appropriately focus on the budget. Thus, instead of making difficult choices on social services, it chose to delay cuts until future years. The lack of time and the Democratic propensity to spend money resulted in increased spending at a time when Vermonters are already overtaxed. Although Vermont has America’s highest state tax rate, the Democrats passed a budget including $26 million in tax increases.

With every Republican voting against it, Democrats truly own this year’s budget. Because Douglas will veto the package, he called for a special legislative session next week to improve it. However, Democrats are confident they have enough votes to override Douglas’ veto and their budget will become law without further changes. Both of Williston’s representatives, Democrats Terry Macaig and McCullough, voted for the budget.

The budget relies on federal stimulus money and tax increases to make up for declining revenue in order to avoid cutting the size of government. Still, the Democrats’ budget totals $200 million in deficits over the next two years. These deficits will surely grow when federal funds run out.

Besides the tax increases and funding deficits, Douglas and Republicans point out that the budget does not address a $160 million shortfall in Vermont’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. Additionally, while student enrollment continues to decline, the budget does not cut education spending. Finally, as noted by Angelo Lynn, publisher/editor of the Addison Independent, the plan allocates just $4.1 million in a $4.5 billion budget for economic development and job creation investments.

In the end, Democrats refused to make meaningful cuts to state government and the result is a budget greater than what Vermonters can realistically afford.

“This bill demonstrates this Legislature’s inability to make the hard decisions needed to assure Vermonters’ financial health,” said Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre. “It manifests an attitude that the taxpayers can always be tapped to do just a little more.”

Over the next few years — as revenues continue to decline and the federal stimulus money dries up — the Legislature will face two choices: Cut spending or increase taxes. As Rep. Rick Hube, R-South Londonderry, wrote, “Those who would write budgets that overspend will have a tendency to fund them by overtaxing.” Since the Democratic-led Legislature has already shown it cannot cut spending, get ready to pay higher taxes for the foreseeable future.

Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Military History and a master’s in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.