The biennial legislative session has just concluded, and it was a banner year for Vermont’s version of advanced liberalism. Consider these features:
The 2015 General Fund budget grew by 5.6 percent over the 2014 budget approved a year ago. That means that state spending is increasing about twice as fast as state revenues, thus undoing years of careful work to ensure "sustainability" in state finances.
The Education Fund grew to $1.513 billion, a 4.4 percent increase over last year, even as pupil attendance continued to decline. To cover the annual shortfall produced by school district voters, the legislature increased the residential education property tax base rate from 94 cents per $100 Fair Market Value to 98 cents, and the non-residential tax rate from $1.44 to $1.515. This was on top of 5 and 6 cent increases in those rates last year.
This was a banner biennium for the labor movement. The Vermont State Employees Union first won a long-sought blanket authorization to pocket "agency fees" for representing non-member state employees. The fees are 15 percent below union membership dues, but there is no assurance that non-members will not be made to pay for the union’s political activities.
The AFL-CIO won two major victories. First it got the willing legislature to authorize independent home service providers to form a pseudo-union to bargain with the State over subsidies for persons receiving home services. Since the legislature has to authorize the money for the program, there’s not much the State’s bargainers can actually deliver, and the providers can’t go out on strike if the subsidies aren’t enough.
Then Labor got the legislature to authorize a similar pseudo-union for providers of subsidized day care to children. The key feature of both of these measures is to swell the coffers of the unions by requiring payment of dues and agency fees.
A major victory for modern liberalism was passage of the job shrinkage bill, also known as increasing the state minimum wage. Vermont’s current minimum wage, already the second highest in the nation ($8.73), will go up in stages to $10.50 in 2018. Gov. Shumlin successfully argued that increasing it that much in one year would hurt small businesses too much too soon.
The education lobby, pushed as always by the VT-NEA teachers union, finally succeeded in getting the legislature to mandate that all school districts offer universal pre-kindergarten. Even so loyal a Democrat as Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel, concerned about the impact the legislation will have on property taxpayers, balked at this one, but it sped on to passage. To the public school lobby’s dismay, a sweeping bill to consolidate school districts, and another to strangle Vermont’s independent schools, failed in the adjournment crunch.
The enviros put the state in charge of private property in a 250 foot strip around lakes. Another new feature was the authorization to Efficiency Vermont use ratepayer money to subsidize the installation of energy-saving heat pump systems, the savings from which will end up in the pockets of homeowners with $25,000 to invest.
The legislature approved a bizarre scheme from Treasurer Beth Pearce, whereby the state will stop paying for the retired teachers’ health care costs out of their retirement fund, which is only 60 percent funded, and instead "borrow" $28 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which is also underfunded.
The Free Press report noted that the majority "protected their governor’s plans to enact universal health care in the next two years by fending off efforts to pin him down to revealing how he would pay for it" -- that is, how he proposes to raise $2 billion in new taxes.
If there should be a 2014 surplus of $4.5 million -- not likely -- the legislature voted to turn it over to Shumlin to distribute to whichever businesses are thinking about departing Vermont. The idea that maybe we ought to back off the taxes, mandates and regulations that cause businesses to think about moving did not get any consideration.
Perhaps the two most symbolic, if ineffectual, liberal victories were the GMO and Con-Con bills.
The GMO bill was touted as "letting consumers know what’s in their food." In fact, food manufacturers are allowed to say that their products "may contain Genetically Modified Organisms" (or not). The only certain result of this measure will be a multimillion dollar lawsuit that the state will most likely lose.
The Con-Con bill made Vermont the first state in the union to call for a constitutional convention to propose an amendment to repeal the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech for everybody, and limit it to those whose speech is favored by liberals. Nice!
There are more advanced measures that liberals did not push through this year, but they’ll surely be back next year to try again.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.