Let’s hear the alternatives
Voters in Oregon bucked conventional wisdom last month and chose to raise taxes rather than accept deeper and more damaging cuts to the state budget. The Legislature had approved the package of tax increases on corporations and on households with personal income of $250,000 or more ($125,000 for individuals). Opponents thought they could defeat the increases through a referendum, but voters ratified the higher taxes by comfortable margins.
It is too soon to know if Oregon will turn out to be a bellwether. But one lesson to take from the Oregon experience is that voters are willing to support higher taxes if they hear a compelling case for maintaining services that residents need and expect. That takes leadership and the courage to tell people the truth about the problems they face and what it will take to fix them.
We need that kind of leadership in Vermont today.
First, we need to hear an honest assessment of what it would mean to cut $150 million out the state’s General Fund budget. That’s the size of the budget gap the administration and legislative leaders say we face next year. It’s really bigger than that if we’re talking about maintaining current services, but even cutting $150 million will cause real problems. We deserve to know what those problems would look like.
How much harder will it be to reach someone in a state office? How much longer will it take to process permits or get a case heard in court? What will it mean to an elderly neighbor to have her dental care cut from $495 a year to $200? How many more businesses will lose business because the bridge down the road has been closed? Will our private health insurance premiums increase or decrease if we make it harder for low-income families to get coverage? How much federal money will not come into Vermont if we fail to appropriate the state matching funds?
We hear vague acknowledgment that the budget cuts will cause some problems or that all Vermonters are going to have to share in the pain. But our elected representatives have an obligation to understand and explain how we, their constituents, will be affected by the cuts being proposed, and they need to talk to us about whether that’s the kind of state we want.
Second, they need to understand and explain to us what the alternatives are. What are the options for generating revenue if we want to avoid some or all of the cuts? Why do we have rainy days funds if we’re not willing to use the money in a recession as deep as this one? What would it mean to various taxpayers to have a temporary tax hike like the one the Snelling administration and the Legislature adopted in 1991?
We don’t need an Oregon-style referendum to decide these questions. We still have good access to public officials in this state, and we elected them to act on our behalf. But they have to do more than pat us on the head and tell us not to worry, they’re not raising taxes. A lot of people are worried about the direction the state is headed and believe the budget ax is not the only solution.
If nothing else, surely the Oregon vote taught us that elected officials don’t have to fear an open discussion of all the options.
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