Politically Thinking: Risk to Vt. in 2012 is a GOP sweep

Gov. Shumlin and Vermont’s Democratic legislative majorities do not need to be overly concerned about re-election in 2012. However, they do face a major political risk next year: the impacts of Republican control of both the presidency and Congress on Vermont’s fiscal policy.
Shumlin appears to be in good shape for the upcoming election. Polls show he has a positive approval rating. He has received generally high marks for his leadership of the state’s recovery effort after Tropical Storm Irene. The governor has a strong political organization and has been raising money assiduously for his re-election. No Republican candidate for governor has yet emerged, enabling Shumlin to dominate political news coverage.
Legislative Democrats should continue to hold large majorities in both the House and Senate next year. Membership change in the Legislature in 2012 will likely come more from the impacts of redistricting than from retirements and electoral defeats. Because of shifts in the state’s population over the last decade, northwestern Vermont will gain legislative seats, while the Northeast Kingdom and parts of southern Vermont will lose seats. The partisan effects of these changes appear to be a wash. Seats Republicans lose in the Northeast Kingdom they will pick up in Franklin County, while seats Democrats lose in southern Vermont they will pick up in Chittenden County.
If electoral stability will be the order of the day in Vermont in 2012, the national elections could result in substantial change. President Obama’s re-election hangs in the balance, with his hopes for a second term depending more on the Republicans’ damaging themselves by internecine primary warfare than on improvement in the economy and Americans’ views of the country’s prospects.
The Republicans will almost certainly hold on to their U.S. House majority, and a gain of only four seats would give the GOP control of the U.S. Senate. With Democrats having to defend open Senate seats in New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin, and with Democratic incumbents threatened in Missouri, Montana, Ohio and West Virginia, the Republicans’ chances of gaining the necessary four seats look promising at this time.
If next year’s elections produce a Republican president and a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, federal assistance to state and local governments will be cut drastically in the four years starting in 2013. If Obama is re-elected, or if the Democrats can hold on to a narrow Senate majority, federal aid to state budgets will be much less subject to substantial cuts.
Vermont state government will take in approximately $4.8 billion from all sources in the current fiscal year. About $1.6 billion of this total represents federal funds. In other words, roughly one out of every three dollars the state of Vermont will collect this year comes from Washington. Federal assistance for health care programs such as Medicaid and Dr. Dynosaur, and grants for highways and other transportation programs, represent the largest components of these federal funds.
Congressional Republicans have talked about cutting federal assistance to state and local governments by 10 to 20 percent over the four-year term of the next president. If, over the four years from 2013 to 2017, Vermont’s federal grants were to be cut by 5 percent annually, this would represent a cumulative reduction in federal revenues to the state of approximately $300 million over that four-year period. Filling a budget gap of that magnitude, on top of the costs resulting from Tropical Storm Irene, would pose a most significant challenge to Gov. Shumlin and the Vermont Legislature in 2013 and beyond.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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