Give Vermont State Auditor Tom Salmon points in courage for bucking the majority and switching to the minority party, but Vermonters should be wary of his reasons.
First, he blames Vermont Democrats for a budget process that was “rife with deficiencies and dysfunction,” and second, he says the Republican Party’s grasp on the fiscal crisis facing the state is better anchored in reality.
Fiscal conservatives may find little fault with either statement, but Salmon neither defined his criticism or substantiated his faith in the Republican way. His generic statements did what most politicians do: suggest fiscal discipline, criticize their opponents, then omit any specifics on how they might propose a better solution.
Salmon has, however, made proposals in the past two terms as auditor, and those proposals — however contradictory — offer a more revealing look at what he might believe.
Consider, for instance, his on-line commentary on July 2009 in which he recalled that earlier in the past legislative session one of the “bold ideas” he advocated would be to temporarily increase the state income tax — an idea that the state’s Republican Party and governor firmly rejected. Or consider that another of Salmon’s bold ideas was to institute a casino in Killington, which the state could heavily tax — another idea that was solidly rejected.
While Salmon has been right to advocate a balanced budget (who doesn’t) and harp on the need to reduce spending, Salmon seems to have a tin ear when it comes to doling out the fiscal pain in a manner that matches a person’s ability to pay. One of his suggestions was to reduce the income sensitivity provision (under Act 60) on the property taxes that finance education, which would dramatically increase the property tax burden on middle-class families and make it more difficult to adequately finance our public schools.
If that is a “firm grasp” on fiscal reality, then perhaps what Salmon and the Republican Party are lacking is a social conscience and any sort of grasp of the state’s political reality.
Democrats, on the other hand, have been advocating — as former Republican Gov. Richard Snelling did almost 20 years ago — temporary revenue increases that would be rescinded once the state’s economy rebounded from the current recession, plus agreed to cuts amounting to $22 million in this past budget. That’s working to reduce the budget crisis from both sides of the fiscal equation, which many economists suggest is mandatory.
Salmon also falls short on his pledge for frankness when he suggests that the state’s high tax rate has been prompted by “poor management and lack of planning,” a criticism that reflects as much on the past eight years of the Douglas administration as it does on the Democratic Legislature, and wrongly suggests that better management and planning is the panacea to the state’s fiscal problems.
State Democrats would be right to worry that fiscal moderates are being shunned by the party if it were not for the fact that several of Salmon’s concerns and suggestions were heeded, while others, quite frankly, were neither new or politically astute. Furthermore, in what is admittedly one of the toughest budget sessions in many years, it is understandable that the legislative process this year would be fraught with political angst.
Salmon’s political leanings are also brought into focus by his admission that he voted for independent candidate Ross Perot, rather than endorsing President Bill Clinton in either 1992 or 1996. That news (and whether he supported George W. Bush in both terms) doesn’t have a huge impact on state politics, though it serves as an indicator of political preference — and what is known is that Salmon has not been solidly in the Democratic camp for several years.
Salmon’s move, then, can perhaps be interpreted most accurately within a political context.
Looking out on the Republican landscape, few statewide leaders are ready to fill the leadership vacuum that will be created when Gov. James Douglas steps out of the limelight, while the Democratic field is crowded with political hopefuls. If Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie runs for governor and loses (or if he decides not to run), Salmon would likely be the highest-ranking Republican in the state and would have the credentials to run as a non-partisan moderate.
That’s just smart politics and certainly one way to leapfrog as a political contender to the state’s top post.