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Editorial: Another reckless plan by Gov. Scott; a disappointing characteristic of his leadership

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Posted on May 3, 2018 |
By Angelo Lynn



Gov. Phil Scott and his administration either didn’t learn from last year’s last-minute political shenanigans or they are deliberately posing a veto showdown with the Democratically controlled Legislature because they think that’s how they can exert the most political leverage.

In either case, the tactics yield poor governance and a terrible way to exercise leadership.

At issue is the governor’s decision this week, with just two weeks of the Legislative session remaining, to propose a five-year plan to reduce education spending and keep property taxes from rising. To accomplish his short-term plan — to keep the statewide property tax from going up by about 5-7 cents — he would beg, borrow and steal $58 million in one-time funds to contribute to the education fund. Savvy residents would remember this is what the governor did last year, also with a last-minute demand for education savings that led to a veto, and which caused the state to inherit a huge spending deficit as a result of using one-time funds and not adequately funding school spending.

This year the Scott administration has proposed using $58 million in one-time funds to plug the hole in the education fund with money that comes from several sources: $19 million from a tobacco settlement; $20 million from state surplus revenues; $7 million from the state’s rainy day reserve fund; and $12 million through raids on a variety of other sources. The money would be paid back over time, the administration claims, but only if the number of teachers and staffs at schools around the state are cut significantly. To achieve its planned savings over the next five years, the governor’s plan would have to reduce school staff and teachers by 1,000.

Few dispute school spending has to be reduced or taxes have to be raised. That’s not the issue. Rather, it’s the manner in which Gov. Scott and his administration have, for the second consecutive year, dropped a bombshell in the waning days of the session. Last year it was the governor’s demand for a statewide teacher contract for health insurance.

The obvious question is why won’t the governor and his team make these proposals at the start of the session so the Legislature can react to them. That’s leadership. The opposite of leadership is waiting until the Legislature is about to adjourn and then task them with the impossible in two weeks time.

It’s a poor way to govern because the citizen legislature needs adequate time to respond to proposals from the executive branch, hold hearings, gather information, and truly represent a statewide discussion of the proposal. By waiting until the last minute, the administration seems intent on skirting that far more transparent and participatory process.

And it hasn’t gone over well.

Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, called the plan reckless. “We did that last year and look where we are this year, putting one-time money on a credit card to pay off next year is not fiscally responsible. I didn’t like it last year and I think it is worse this year,” he told VtDigger.

Added Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington: “People are starting to recognize that this is a game for them,.. This is a Donald Trump, Speaker Ryan, Mitch McConnell move; I really believe it. And it’s really disappointing that it has arrived here in the state of Vermont.”

Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) called the governor’s move “horse hockey” and encouraged his colleagues not to “fall into the political trap.”

Even more disappointing is Scott’s professed reason for such shenanigans: to fulfill an overly simplistic campaign pledge not to raise taxes or fees.

Never mind that springing major legislative proposals on the Legislature at the last minute is a lousy way to govern, or that using $58 million in one-time funds is fiscally irresponsible and digs a bigger hole for the Legislature to get out of next year, or that banking on saving $262 million over five years due to a reduction in teachers and staff without any mechanism to carry out such reductions is not how any right-thinking businessman would approach the issue. Even with all those negatives, it’s worse that the governor and his team would deliberately govern in a way that put politics ahead of acting in a business or professional manner to the best of their ability. They know better. That they chose not to subject their proposal to the full review of the Legislature and the public is underhanded and chicken-hearted.

Why would they not want to subject their plan to closer public scrutiny? Because it rests on the premise of implementing a one-size fits all student-teacher ratio that will have hugely negative impacts on smaller schools throughout the state while having virtually no impact on larger school systems.

Will small schools in rural areas suffer the most and likely have to consider closing to meet the governor’s target? Absolutely. There are few other ways to make such drastic cuts in staffing. Will schools and communities have a choice? Sure, pay a penalty (a tax by any other name) for exceeding the state-mandated ratio. Are they other hidden penalties that will make it more difficult for small schools to survive, and Vermont students to gain a good education? Who knows? With the plan just being introduced on Tuesday, very little has been discussed, let alone hashed out among the various legislative committees — a process meant to weed out bad ideas, fine-tune legislation to avoid pitfalls, and to hone in on total costs of implementation and/or savings.

What’s disappointing is thinking the governor’s team made this choice for purely political reasons: that is, to be able to campaign this summer and next fall on the premise that he tried to prevent an increase in property taxes, but that Democrats in the Legislature overruled his plan. He’s hoping that by this coming November, Vermont voters will have forgotten that he dropped a cow-pie in the laps of the Legislature at the 11th hour.

That’s not the type of leadership we expected of Gov. Scott.

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