How should the 2012 session of the Legislature be assessed? I would give the lawmakers a B+ grade: above-average performance, but with room for improvement on some issues and more work to be done on others.
Legislators were able to balance the state budget without increases in the sales, income or gasoline taxes, and without making major cuts in state spending. Vermont’s public finances are in better shape than in many states. Vermont’s unemployment rate is considerably lower than the national average, and both state government and Vermont households have lower debt burdens than in much of the country.
The property tax will be increasing for many taxpayers this year. The Legislature reduced the transfer from the General Fund to the Education Fund, and also raised the statewide property tax rate by 2 cents. Even though most school boards kept their budget increases to 3 percent or less, the combination of legislative actions and the decline in the grand list due to the drop in housing values will mean that homeowners in many towns will see their property taxes go up by 5 percent or more, even as K-12 enrollments continue to decline.
The health care bills passed in the 2011 and 2012 sessions put Vermont on track toward health care reform that, if successfully implemented, will reduce the rate of health care inflation and will improve access to care. Yet many uncertainties about this program remain. How much of it will be viable if the Supreme Court rules some or all of the federal health care law unconstitutional? How would a single-payer system be financed? Can the Green Mountain Care Board develop a payment reform program that the state’s hospitals can live with, that will not significantly restrict patients’ freedom of choice, and that will keep Vermont an attractive work location for physicians and other health care professionals?
The 2012 Legislature deserves credit for moving quickly to repair damage to state infrastructure resulting from Tropical Storm Irene. New processes were put in place for repairing state highways that will result in both faster project completion and lower construction costs. The state office complex in Waterbury will be restored, through a combination of renovations and new construction, maintaining an important part of Waterbury’s economic base. A major mental health bill will continue the development of community-based mental health services and authorizes construction of a new state hospital in central Vermont for those with the most serious mental illnesses.
Some important issues were left unattended by the 2012 Legislature. No action was taken on the January 2011 report of the special tax commission that recommended broadening the base of both the income and the sales tax while reducing the rates of both those taxes. On the income tax, Vermont is in the minority of states that pass through most federal deductions, exemptions and tax preferences. Most states use adjusted gross income rather than federal taxable income as the basis for their income taxes.
In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled much of Vermont’s campaign finance law unconstitutional. In 2012, the Legislature was unable to pass a campaign finance reform bill. The direction in which the Supreme Court is heading in campaign finance law is not one that most Democrats in Vermont find acceptable, since it rejects both limits on contributions and outright bans on corporate political spending. In the absence of a new law, a 1970s era campaign finance law remains on the books in Vermont, but the continued viability of that statute, in both political and legal terms, is unclear.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.