Meeting our needs

Rutland Herald – Editorial
September 07, 2016

Does Vermont state government need to retrench or do more? This is the perennial question defining state politics and the roles of the two parties. A new report asks a different question: What is it that the state needs to do?

The Public Assets Institute is a policy analysis organization in Montpelier that for years has been pressing the point, contained in state law, that the state budget must “address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity.” In a variety of ways, according to Public Assets, the state has been falling down on that job.

The list of stubborn problems is significant:

— More than half of single mothers with children living in poverty.

— Dwindling benefits for those unable to work.

— Only 60 percent of high school students going on to college.

— Stagnant wages.

— Child care and health care costs going up.

— Deteriorating roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

A major reason the state has not been able to get on top of these problems, Public Assets argues, is that policymakers and legislators remain focused each year on balancing a one-year budget. Thus, when economic growth was slow and needs were high, they made damaging cuts. It is “short-sighted to reduce spending on critical programs and defund the very functions that make government more effective, such as policy development, evaluation and long-term planning,” the report says

It is received wisdom in many quarters that state government already spends too much money and that the top priority in the immediate future is to cut back. That is not the approach of Public Assets. It begins with a long list of needs, arguing that with $30 billion in annual personal income, the state has the money to do more.

Those needs include significant money for infrastructure, including roads, bridges, telecommunications, drinking water, wastewater and affordable housing. Absent money for these needs, the state will continue on a downhill path, and addressing these problems is what state government is for, according to Public Assets.

Republicans argue that the best way to improve the capacity of state government to meet these needs is for government to reduce its role, allowing the economy as a whole to grow, producing revenues that could be used for the state’s needs. But that is a chicken-and-egg problem. Without adequate investment in infrastructure, and in education and other human needs, the state will not have the capacity to achieve the growth that would provide the desired revenues.

Public Assets addresses a variety of ways the state could improve the human capital of the state, including steps to make work pay. These include raising the minimum wage, making greater use of the earned income tax credit, boosting support for child care, health care and post-secondary education and providing a state-sponsored retirement fund for the many employees who lack retirement security.

Public Assets notes that Govs. Howard Dean and James Douglas both cut the offices responsible for long-range planning, making it all the more difficult for either the executive or legislative branches to plot out the state’s future needs. That leaves the Legislature each year chiseling away here, increasing fees there, just to prevent a deficit.

It need not be that way. Contrary to a widely shared impression, state government has not grown appreciably in recent years. “Adjusted for economic growth,” the report says, “Vermont state spending has not been mushrooming out of control. In fact, the cost of state government represented a smaller share of Vermonters’ total personal income in 2015 than it did in 2006 or 2007.”

The report says it is correct to ask what Vermont can afford. But it also asks whether Vermont can afford current levels of poverty and inattention to other needs.

These questions will be central to this year’s governor’s race. Sue Minter, the Democrat, has outlined an activist’s approach to state government. Phil Scott, the Republican, is focused on making government live within its means. The Public Assets report lands squarely in the middle of that fight.

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