Guest editorial: Political courage will help build a stronger Vermont

No political insiders in Montpelier were surprised when Sen. Jane Kitchel condemned the Scott administration’s proposal to zero out the education fund reserves to provide short-term property tax relief, saying “that is a practice that we never ever had considered, or would consider, as fiscally responsible use of a reserve.” In her long, distinguished career as a political leader, Sen. Kitchel has always been fiscally responsible while working diligently to meet the human needs of Vermonters, so no one was surprised when she voted to override the governor’s veto of the education funding bill. She had the political courage to do the right thing to protect Vermont’s public education system and to provide services to Vermont’s most precious resource, our children.

Every legislator struggled with the education funding bill. They knew it would be an unpopular decision that would lead to increased property taxes, yet voted to support public schools, the cornerstone of democracy. Legislators who voted to support the children and youth of Vermont demonstrated true political courage. They chose to support sound public policy and fiscal responsibility without regard for their own political popularity.

Ever since Ronald Reagan entered American politics, Republican politicians have generated political popularity by promising tax cuts. Grover Norquist founded the Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 and has been one of the chief architects of the current GOP’s dogma of reducing taxes and shrinking the size of government. Former Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming was particularly critical in describing Norquist’s position as “no taxes, under any situation, even if your country goes to hell.” This anti-tax mentality led to the 2017 Trump tax law that cost the government $1.9 trillion in revenues and failed to deliver any economic benefits to average Americans.

Vermont’s current governor follows Grover Norquist’s simplistic directive in his refusal to increase revenues to support essential services to Vermonters. He knows that one way to remain popular is to continue to rail against taxes. It’s a winning formula, since no one wants to pay higher taxes. While “no new taxes” is a popular campaign slogan it does nothing to improve public policy and ensure services for Vermonters, and it certainly doesn’t display an ounce of political courage. The only thing this affordability argument does is fuel the anti-government attitude and rhetoric on social media and at Trump rallies.

On Monday, June 17, we heard this Republican anti-government stance articulated by Republican State Rep. Patricia McCoy of Rutland County speaking against the education funding bill that would provide adequate resources for public education. “This bill continues to feed the beast,” said House Minority Leader McCoy. Vermonters know the importance of public education in meeting the needs of our children and youth and do not see our schools and the students they serve as any type of beast.

On that same day, Republican Rep. Michael Morgan of Milton said, “My constituents, as a whole, have reached out begging for relief in this arena. Why we are not working to find a solution for relief now is beyond my comprehension.” Perhaps his Statehouse colleagues could help Mr. Morgan comprehend how they worked during the entire legislative session to find a solution and how the governor’s proposal was so fiscally irresponsible that it was panned by Wall Street. While that might be beyond his comprehension, many Vermonters cannot comprehend how a Republican can be in the governor’s office for eight years — after being lieutenant governor for six and a state senator for 10 — and offer no plan to find the necessary revenues to support an education system that meets the needs of young Vermonters and their families. “No new taxes” is neither a plan nor effective public policy.

Vermonters have made it abundantly clear that they want a new equitable education funding system. Thousands of citizens voted against school budgets this year who had never considered voting against a school budget in the past, but they were actually voting against severe property tax increases, not against their local school budgets.

Since 2018, Vermont-NEA has argued that Vermont must shift education financing from the property tax to the income tax, allowing all Vermonters to pay their fair share. Rather than blaming Democrats and calling them arrogant, perhaps the governor can find the political courage to let go of his Grover Norquist pledge card, roll up his sleeves, and work with the legislators who were voted into office by the same Vermonters who voted him into office, and build a strong and effective state government. That will take real political courage.

Don Tinney, a longtime high school English teacher at BFA-St. Albans, represents 13,000 educators as president of Vermont-NEA.

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