Politically Thinking: Left may challenge Shumlin budget

Gov. Shumlin will submit his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 to the Legislature at the end of January. Opposition to Shumlin’s budget may be more intense among progressives than among Republicans.
The Republicans are too weak to be a major force in Montpelier. They hold fewer than one-third of the seats in the House and the Senate. The senior Republican, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, has made it clear that he does not see his role as leading the opposition to Shumlin.
Scott told the Burlington Free Press that “It’s not part of my DNA to be a roadblock … I’ve never advocated that the Republicans be a party of ‘no.’” Indeed, Shumlin has asked Scott, his long-time Senate colleague, to serve as a member of the governor’s cabinet, even though there is no constitutional or statutory requirement that the lieutenant governor be included in that group.
Shumlin said during the transition that he wanted to balance the fiscal 2012 budget without resorting to either increases in broad-based taxes or reductions in the number of state employees. The budget gap is now estimated at about $150 million, nearly 15 percent of the General Fund. The leaders of Shumlin’s budget staff are Jeb Spaulding, who is transitioning from Treasurer to Secretary of Administration, gubernatorial staffer and former Senate Appropriations Chair Susan Bartlett, and Jim Reardon, the commissioner of finance in the Douglas administration, who is continuing in that role under Shumlin.
Spaulding, Bartlett, and Reardon can all be considered “deficit hawks” in the Montpelier context. The budget they are building for Shumlin will start with the 6 percent cuts across all departments that Gov. Douglas asked his agency heads to prepare in the final months of his administration. Since these cuts will fill only about half of the projected budget gap, Shumlin’s team will need to come up with more reductions in state programs in order to meet the new governor’s target of a balanced budget with no increases in broad-based taxes. Spaulding was quoted earlier this week as saying that “there is a good chance the governor will present a budget that he doesn’t like. To close a gap of that size is going to cause some pain.”
Once Shumlin submits his budget, human services advocates will surely argue that the cuts being proposed in health and social services programs will cut those programs to the bone, and that the quality of life of vulnerable Vermonters, particularly low-income children and elders, will be jeopardized by the reductions in state spending. Progressives and progressive Democrats in the Legislature will be receptive to these claims.
The response of Progressives and progressive Democrats may well be to support tax increases on upper-income Vermonters in order to protect lower-income recipients of state services. Newly elected Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Democrat and Progressive from Washington County, wants the Legislature to raise income tax rates on Vermonters with household incomes over $250,000. These are the households whose tax rates President Obama initially argued should go back to the pre-Bush level at the end of 2010, only to retreat from that position as part of his negotiations with Republicans in the U.S. Senate during last month’s lame-duck session of Congress.
Whether Shumlin and his supporters will be able to pass a budget with substantial human services cuts and no income tax increases, over the opposition of progressive Democrats and Progressives, could be one of the most interesting stories of the new governor’s first year.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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