The cynic among us would note that the biggest danger of the Legislature not adjourning this past weekend is how much damage it can do in two more days.
A kinder analysis would note that because many budget issues were still unresolved, and the tax bill still incomplete, any late night heroics to finish by Saturday would have also been prone to error.
But while extending the session into Monday and Tuesday of this week has merit, tossing new tax proposals into the pot at the last minute — with no opportunity for public discussion — is beyond the pale.
Think about it. The Legislature came into this session four months ago thinking they had to raise significant amounts of money through taxes, while also cutting spending. They knew that was going to be the heavy lifting of this year’s session. And they got to work.
For most of these past 120 days, they thoroughly discussed carefully crafted tax plans. Committees worked long days and nights on tax and spending details. They spent hours and hours listening to public testimony, and those citizens testifying spent meaningful hours in preparation. During all that, legislators spent more hours fighting for compromises within their respective committees and houses of government, and then in conference committee between the Senate and House.
Then last week, with April tax revenue numbers looking far better than expected, all that work was put aside for the moment and the House, Senate and the governor and his administration agreed that no new taxes were needed; that tax revenues and the state economy were so good the state could trim another $10 million in spending and — with a sense of good ole Yankee frugality — we’d live without the desire to raise more money!
It was a much ballyhooed agreement that lasted about a day, or less, with liberal Progressives first wanting to give more to those who are unemployed (an amendment that failed spectacularly, 19-118, in the House), and now with House and Senate leaders considering a new proposal that would lower income taxes on the middle-class and raise income taxes on the wealthiest. It’s an idea, according to news reports over the weekend, that has legs — even though the governor says it would violate the spirit of the agreement, and even though those legislators agreed the state did not need to raise more money.
Gov. Peter Shumlin is calling it like it is: an income tax that raises taxes on a segment of the population — pure and simple.
The House and Senate leadership, with a little tortured logic, are saying the tax proposal is revenue neutral (because it also lowers income taxes on the middle class) and, therefore, the tax increase on one segment of the population really isn’t an, uh, ummm, increase.
That’s too cute to be amusing.
It’s not that the new proposal isn’t legitimate. In fact, it’s the heart of a suggestion a blue ribbon tax committee made three years ago. But proposing such far-reaching ideas in the last days of the session is bad business and subject to unintended consequences.
And if this is such a good idea, why wasn’t it a central part of the tax plan proposed earlier this year, run up the flag pole by the various committees and subject to public discussion? Does the Legislature really think all this business about the public process is just for show? Do they really favor passing significant legislation without public participation?
Nor is the money needed. Not this year.
As for next year, there is plenty of time to incorporate this idea into a tax overhaul that can be thoroughly vetted through the committee process and discussed at length by all Vermonters.
But to slip a proposal like this in at the 11th hour — well, that’s the kind of thing that turns citizens into cynics.
Angelo S. Lynn