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April 14th, 2008

Turning politics on its head

The move Tuesday by Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington to abandon plans to close a loophole on a capital gains tax exemption initially proposed by Republican Gov. James Douglas turns state politics on its head. Since when do Democrats fail to close a tax loophole to the wealthy for potential gain to the common good?

Yet, that’s what happened.

Not that there would not have been difficulties proceeding with the proposal. The Democratic Legislature and Gov. Douglas had disagreements over how to spend the estimated $21.4 million annually. Douglas wanted to give the windfall to middle income Vermonters as well as to the very rich. Democrats wanted to split the amount three ways: $4.2 million for targeted property tax relief; $8 million for the highway and bridge program and $7 million to pay off a portion of the $55 million the state owes on school construction projects (the latter two of which would also indirectly lower local property taxes for most Vermonters.)

Because Douglas objected to spending the money for the common good (as detailed above — no new programs, just meeting existing obligations of the state) and because he would be denied the possible campaign claims of saying he had reduced income taxes, a political battle was looming on the horizon. Both sides of the political aisle saw it coming and the decision to bail was greeted by sighs of relief from both parties.

Interestingly, the administration was relieved because it meant Democrats wouldn’t spend the money — even if the expenses had already been committed or, go figure, were for property tax relief. (Why Douglas would support income tax relief, but not property tax relief is unclear.) Many Democrats, on the other hand, were relieved because of the future economic uncertainty and the very real possibility that legislators might need to tap that ready source of income in the near future for critical needs.

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March 12th

A solution for Bristol’s pit

In Bristol this Tuesday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m., the Zoning Board of Adjustment will meet to continue discussions regarding the proposed Lathrop gravel pit. It’s a complicated project with an Act 250 filing as thick as a big-city phone book, but the central question that needs public input and board leadership is relatively straight-forward: Is the proposed location of the pit the appropriate place for a large-scale mining operation, and should the public have a chance to clarify wording in the town plan that has created much of the ambiguity pertaining to this project?

The ambiguous wording is the phrase “in any district” found in section 526 of the town plan. The dueling interpretations of the phrase contend that the phrase would allow gravel mining ‘in any district’ in the town (supposedly including the village or any other residential setting) or, opponents of the pit argue, that the phrase meant that mining was allowed ‘in any district’ (industrial, etc.) where mining was allowed.

Logic would suggest that full-scale mining operations — with rock-crushers and the consequential noise and dust that would come from such an operation — would not be suitable for residential zones or mixed rural residential, commercial zones. The Bristol Planning Commission, which has the authority to clarify zoning by-laws and revise them if necessary, has said it will take up this section of the town plan at upcoming meetings. That’s welcome involvement because surely the commission members will make every effort to seek public opinion to determine the will of the community. Town plans, after all, are approved by a majority of the town’s residents and crucial aspects of the plan should be reviewed and revised, if necessary, with the public will in mind.

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2008: A watershed year for Middlebury

The year 2008 may mark one of the turning points in the Middlebury’s history. It will be the year town residents committed to building the Cross Street Bridge, approved a $16 million bond and agreed to change the town’s charter to allow for the implementation of local option taxes. All were enormously important decisions.

But it will likely also mark the beginning of a renaissance in community betterment.

Let’s count the ways:

• This summer, after almost a decade in the making, Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater comes back to life. The extraordinary $6 million renovation of that historic building will have been completed and Middlebury’s arts scene will be more vibrant than ever before.

• A riverfront committee is making plans to continue improvement on the banks of the Otter Creek just below the falls, following up on work that began this past fall. If all goes according to plan, an outside amphitheater will get underway that will provide several rows of riverside seating (just above and beside the footbridge near the Marble Works’ picnic tables) and the potential for musical and theatric entertainment in the summer and fall when the weather permits.

That’s just one part of a long-range plan to more fully utilize the Otter Creek’s shoreline through the length of the town and beyond. Better canoe and boat access and egress points are also in the works, making it more convenient for boaters to appreciate the creek. Expanded parks and a running/walking path along the creek are also in the planning stages.

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Gov’s capital gains plan has merit

In his State of the State speech, Gov. James Douglas announced two ways to generate additional revenue. The first was to lease the state’s lottery for a one-time gain of $380 million. The second was to eliminate a loophole in the state’s tax laws that benefited Vermonters with unearned income and capital gains. Closing the loophole would generate approximately $21.4 million annually.

As Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, notes in his legislative column on Page 5, the Legislature has so far been opposed to leasing the lottery for fiscal and values-related reasons. We wholeheartedly agree. The one-time benefit means little in the long-term scheme of things, and the trade-off would turn the lottery into an enterprise that preys on Vermonters who don’t have the money to lose. It’s an unseemly proposition.

Both sides of the legislative aisle agree that closing the capital gains loophole is a good idea, and that’s to the governor’s credit. It’s not only a substantial amount of money into the state’s coffers each year, but it is an effective tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents. Kudos, then, to the governor for going against his pledge not to increase taxes and taking action on this oversight that needed correcting.

And contrary to the Democrats’ suggestion to use that money for expenditures they suggest would lower property taxes, the governor’s plan to use the $21.4 million to lower income taxes for Vermonters has considerable merit.

Here’s why:

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February 16th

Of appreciating Robert Frost

The party at poet Robert Frost’s summer home in Ripton a few weeks ago was a bad idea that spun out of control into deviant behavior. Many of those youths involved have recognized the seriousness of their crime, are apologetic and are seeking to do whatever it takes to repay society for their mistakes.

In meting out justice through the court diversion process as well as through the criminal court process, the intent is clear: those involved must understand the gravity of their mistake and that their actions betrayed the community in which they live. Payment should come in the form of restitution for the damage done, but also in ways that seek to regain the community’s trust.

Suggestions have already included work at the Robert Frost farm to maintain the walking trail leading to the house. Such work could be extended to include the Robert Frost trail network less than a half-mile away. But while such work qualifies for community service, restoring the people’s trust needs to come more from the heart.

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Prolonged nomination has more upside than downside

Here’s an irony: It’s impossible for another media person to criticize the political pundits in this year’s presidential race without becoming one. But, at the risk of impugning my character, it seems some of the nation’s news organizations and their pundits become more inane, and more off-point year by year.

The hot topic of last week was making a big deal about how the drawn-out process for the Democrat Party’s nomination between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama is bad for the party now that Sen. John McCain has a lock on the Republican nomination. Pundits are projecting a brokered convention and foretelling the potential damage if that’s how the process plays out, especially if it’s a dog-fight over the nearly 800 superdelegates.

In a recent CNN story, reporter Jim Acosta found a foil to dramatize how disruptive such a scenario might be: “If 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit the Democratic Party,” said Donna Brazile, adding, for some theatrical effect, “I feel very strongly about this.”

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Bush’s legacy: ‘A fiscal meltdown’

When President George W. Bush unveiled his $3.1 trillion budget on Monday outlining his fiscal plan for 2009, it makes you wonder why anyone would even want to aspire to the presidency post-Bush. The nation’s finances are a disaster thanks to tax cuts, large increases in defense spending and the booming costs of health care, social security, etc., that the nation is obligated to uphold.

Bush’s 2009 budget predicts a $410 billion deficit (not including war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan), and even then is unrealistically low because of inflated revenue projections, low-balling military expenses, and projected cuts that aren’t likely to be approved by Congress. In reality, then, the 2009 deficit will most likely exceed the $413 billion deficit record set in 2004 — the largest ever at the time.

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Hawaiian wedding

Editor's Note: The following appeared as a Clippings piece in the Addison Independent

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