Our opinion: An avoidable drama ends

Gov. Phil Scott may have blinked first on Monday night by deciding to let a budget that raised non-residential property tax rates become law. But he did so in recognition that the avoidable and unnecessary government shutdown that would have taken effect July 1 wasn't worth the calamity. "This debate has gone as far as it can responsibly go," he said, and he's right.

As compromises go, the budget "deal" that is taking effect without Scott's signature is a classic, in that neither side got everything they wanted. Scott didn't get to meet his goal of preventing all state tax rate and fee increases. The Legislature didn't get to avoid using surplus revenue to pay down the property tax rate. And they all lived happily ever after.

And all of this could have been hashed out months ago, without a special session and without a manufactured game of chicken that threatened government employees and people who rely upon state government services.

There's blame to go around, and certainly election-year politics played a significant role. Scott says the blame for this stalemate is on the Legislature, for insisting upon raising tax rates in a year when the state is unexpectedly swimming in revenue. The Legislature, in turn, blames Scott for refusing to budge on reasonable budget compromises and insisting upon buying down the average state property tax rate with "surplus" funds. Both have a valid point.

But keep this in mind: The Legislature had a finished budget ready for Scott's signature, one originally approved by majorities of Scott's fellow Republicans in both the Senate and the House as well as Democrats and Progressives. Getting to "yes" should not have been quite so difficult.

The Legislature had done the hard work, and so had local school districts who gave Scott what he originally asked for — local school budgets that largely held the line on spending. Presumably the House and Senate Republicans who voted yes for that budget did so with full knowledge of what they were approving.

Furthermore, the Democrats held the high ground this time when it came to financial common sense. It's better to use one-time funds to pay down long-term debt such as the state's pension liability, gradually saving taxpayers over the long haul. And it's unwise to use one-time funds to artificially lower taxes, because that all but guarantees sticker shock on the tax rate next year. That's exactly what happened as a result of the deal Scott and the Legislature cut last spring, and it's will likely happen to again next winter.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the special session was the way election-year politics muddied the waters.

It's not surprising that so many GOP members fell into line behind Scott and changed their "yes" budget votes to sustain the override. And it's not surprising that Democrat leaders decided to scuttle a compromise at the last minute last Friday, bowing to the state Senate president's objections.

But it doesn't build confidence in government when members' convictions are disregarded for political purposes. It leads to the belief that this is all a cynical game, with duly-elected representatives treated like pawns, and that the will of the people is a secondary concern, if even a concern at all. And yet folks wonder why so many people have given up on direct participation in government. We can do better.

Democratic government is about honest differences, and finding solutions amid those decisions — sometimes by majority rule, sometimes by compromise. But it takes people who are committed to the process, and to keeping cooler heads when the process invariably gets messy, to truly make it work.

Here's hoping that relationships that were damaged in the Great Vermont Budget Standoff of 2018 can be repaired, so we can get back to the business of governing without manufactured high-stakes confrontations.


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