Our opinion: Will Legislature tackle its priorities?

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The cloud computing software tax the state House of Representatives proposed as part of its clean water funding scheme appears to be on life support, given the state Senate's opposition to the plan. Instead, the state Senate has brought back the concept of raising the hotel rooms tax by a percentage point, to 10 percent, as a means of fulfilling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Lake Champlain cleanup mandate.

The cloud computing tax — assessing a levy on "software as a service" — has been part of the state's revenue stream before. The argument can be made that the EPA water cleanup mandate is also a moral and ethical obligation for which we ought to all chip in, whether we benefit directly or not, and that taxing cloud computing, which many other states already do, is a necessary price to pay for fishable, swimmable lakes Vermonters and visitors can enjoy.

But that's not what the House did. Regrettably, it instead proposed redirecting revenue from the Education Fund for the water cleanup, and then proposed and passed the cloud computing tax to make up the difference in the Education Fund.

Tying a new tax to the Education Fund would all but ensure that tax's existence in perpetuity, lest anyone dared to "cut education spending" by suggesting it be revoked. It's also a cynical shell game. If water cleanup is a priority -- and it should be -- then the House should have tied the new tax directly to funding the cleanup, and argued the new tax on the merits of its intent.

Here in Southern Vermont, it's a harder sell to restaurants and hotels that they should take more out of their customers' pockets because Burlington can't figure out how to keep its untreated sewage out of Lake Champlain. But that's how taxation works; we all chip in for the common good, because in the long run, we all benefit. The dollars tourists spend on ice cream along the Burlington shoreline will help educate children in Vermont's mountains. And all of our kids, from Guilford to Swanton, ought to have a clean Lake Champlain to enjoy.

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But tough arguments seem to be the third rail in Montpelier. It would seem that House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and State Sen. President pro tem Tim Ashe are agreeing to disagree these days, as seen by the persistent disconnect between proposals advancing from the two chambers. Remember all that talk in January of a veto-proof progressive majority enacting legislation over Gov. Scott's head? That now sounds like a vague rumor.

As this is being written, there are significant questions as to whether the Legislature will agree on paid family leave or an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, or whether it could sustain Scott's veto on either initiative. Meanwhile. thousands of Vermonters are using marijuana they may lawfully possess, but not legally purchase, and millions of dollars in potential tax revenue on that cannabis are literally going up in smoke.

It's not impolite to disagree in politics; democracy is messy, and it should be. But avoidance for the sake of appearances is getting Vermont nowhere. And we know the Legislature can accomplish more when it sets its mind to the task, as it did last year in passing common-sense gun safety legislation.

Speaker Johnson and state Sen. Ashe need to know this: A lack of progress can't be blamed on the Governor's veto pen if the Legislature can't get its act together. If giving Vermonters a raise, providing paid family leave as a universal benefit and completing the legalization of marijuana with sensible regulations are truly priorities, then legislative leaders need to do the hard work of reaching compromise on these priorities, override a veto or two if need be, and then let the voters decide if that was the right thing to do.

Otherwise, complaints about obstructionism from Scott's administration will rightly ring hollow.


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