Recent state budgets have been paying costs forward

When Governor Shumlin signed the $616 million transportation bill last week, he punctuated a hallmark of his administration: continued long-term investment in the state’s infrastructure that will lay the foundation for a better economy long after he has left office. The same could be said of gains made in early childhood education, cleaning up Vermont’s waterways and Lake Champlain, investing in renewable energy programs, aggressively addressing the state’s drug crisis and on and on.
The transportation bill is a case in point.
Since his election as governor five years ago, Shumlin has proposed aggressive budgets to fix a statewide transportation system that was falling further and further behind after years of reduced spending. In 2009, about 18 percent of the state’s bridges were structurally deficient. As of 2014, that number has been reduced to 7 percent. Similarly, the percent of pavement rated in “very poor” condition has declined from a high of 36 percent in 2009 to 13 percent in 2014.
And that’s just a part of the transportation bill. As part of the state efforts to address water quality problems, the bill designates $1.2 million for municipal stormwater investments. It also includes funding for railroads, public transit systems, airports, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Importantly for Addison County, this administration has insisted on including funding to improve passenger rail service along the Western Corridor (Burlington to Rutland through Vergennes, Middlebury and Brandon) to help relieve traffic on Route 7 and improve the region’s economic potential.
The specific amounts make the story more real: Of the $616 million in the transportation budget, $116 million is for bridges; $35.1 million is for rail, including $9.1 million for track upgrades on the Western Corridor; $14.8 million is for aviation and $6.1 million is for bicycle and pedestrian facilities. And this is during a year in which the state faced a $113 million deficit and struggled to balance the budget.
Importantly, what the administration and Legislature didn’t do is back off its aggressive program to fix a problem caused in previous years when such expenses were cut to balance budgets so they could profess to “make tough decisions to live within their means.” On the contrary, in many cases such cuts simply deferred those expenses to future administrations.
What Shumlin has done is made a conscientious effort to reduce the backlog of transportation projects in order to lay a solid foundation for the state’s economic development over the long haul.
But it’s not free. While it’s easy for critics to rail against high spending and call for more drastic cuts, what they don’t do is cite specific items to cut: that is, they don’t suggest the state cut the increased spending on roads and bridges; that we should reverse our decision to fund pre-K schooling; that we should eliminate the additional money we’re spending to manage the state’s drug crisis; or end the subsidies on renewable energy — all for obvious reasons.
It is true that the state won’t realize an immediate return on investment by spending more money on insuring that all 3- to 5-year-olds have access to a pre-K education, for example, but long after this administration leaves office those dividends will be paying off for future administrations, just as reducing the backlog of structurally deficit bridges and ruinous roads are an economic benefit that is paid forward.
Such budgeting practices as demonstrated by this administration and this Legislature are, in fact, more responsible than detractors would like the public to believe.
Angelo S. Lynn

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