Public Assets Institute > Press > What Others are Saying > Everything ought to count in budget crisis

Everything ought to count in budget crisis

Editorial with permission from Times Argus
December 14, 2008

When you close down the courts, you are closing down the government. And yet that was the possibility outlined by Chief Justice Paul Reiber as he described ways the state’s judiciary might meet budget-cutting targets proposed by Gov. James Douglas.

The state is facing a dire revenue shortfall, and agencies and offices throughout state government have undertaken a review of programs or personnel that might be cut to achieve an 8 percent reduction in spending. Vermont is not alone. The total projected deficit for the current budget year is running close to 10 percent, a decline in revenue comparable to the decline many other states are experiencing.

There comes a point, however, when government itself is imperiled by falling revenues. Reiber was proposing cutbacks in the judiciary that could involve either closing courts in several counties or reducing personnel through some combination of layoffs and furloughs.

Yet of all the functions of government, the judiciary is one of the most fundamentally important. Adjudicating disputes between citizens and prosecuting criminals — these activities do not qualify as governmental “fat.”

The state is scrounging for money to perform other essential functions. Voices from across the political spectrum now see the need to raise the gas tax by 5 cents in order to pay for bridge and highway repairs and paving that is lagging way behind. These voices include Treasurer Jeb Spaulding and conservative commentator John McClaughry. Gasoline has recently declined from more than $4 a gallon to about $1.80. A nickel tax would barely be felt and could go a long way toward catching up on maintenance and repair of our deteriorating roads and bridges.

The Douglas administration has been talking about siphoning money out of the Education Fund toward transportation, an action that contradicts Douglas’ continuous harping on the need to lower property taxes. Taking money from the Education Fund would raise property taxes or at least prevent a reduction. And yet it seems that whenever money runs short for the state’s General and Transportation Funds, those responsible for those funds are willing to heap new burdens on property tax payers, despite their anti-property tax rhetoric.

Paul Cillo, former state representative and now executive director of the Public Assets Institute, has pointed out the obvious. The state does not have a spending problem so much as it has a revenue problem. What has changed in the last year is not that the state has suddenly expended a new fountain of money on the courts. What has happened is an economic recession that has cut off money needed to pay for the courts, the roads and other important functions of state government.

After six years in office for Douglas to assert that there is an abundance of fat in the budget is an indictment of his own administration. If the budget is full of fat, why hasn’t he already cut it?

It is growing increasingly apparent that the only way that state government will be able to fulfill its essential obligations — roads, courts, police, health care, education, prisons, the environment, care for the poor — will be with new revenue. Forcing property tax payers to cough it up by shifting money away from the Education Fund ought to be a non-starter.

The federal government is likely to provide money for some projects. But the salary of a court clerk in St. Johnsbury or money for foster parents in Pawlet is not likely to be forthcoming from Washington.

When Gov. Richard Snelling encountered a sizable deficit in 1991, he crafted a temporary deficit reduction plan that included budget cuts and higher taxes that were weighted toward the wealthy. Taxing the wealthy is less burdensome on the economy because a portion of their income is likely to be salted away in savings and would not have been spent at the local hardware store in any event.

When contemplating budget problems, Douglas often says that he means to put everything on the table. But he doesn’t mean it. He generally puts higher taxes or the state’s rainy day funds off the table. As the Legislature convenes in January, legislators may realize that without truly putting everything on the table, it will be impossible for them to address the present budget crisis.

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