McClaughry: A Legislative wrap-up for 2019

By John McClaughry

The 2019 legislative session is now history, and it’s worth taking stock of its accomplishments, both positive and negative.

On the plus side, the fiscal year 2020 General Fund budget is balanced (up 3.1%), that is, it’s balanced if the $55 million fiscal year 2019 surplus projected last January actually shows up. The main reason for the surplus is the economic boom produced by the 2017 tax bill enacted by a Republican president and Congress. Naturally, the Democrats in Montpelier aren’t eager to make that point, but they’re very happy to spend the money.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

The new money allowed the Legislature to dedicate 6% of the 9% rooms and meals tax to fund the EPA-required Lake Champlain cleanup. That leaves a $9 million hole in the General Fund next year, to be filled by the newfound surplus money without raising any tax rates. Whether this scheme will reliably fill $12 million holes in following years may prove to be a troublesome question.

Another $27.5 million of the new money will go to funding post-retirement health care benefits for state employees. The legislative leadership, pressed by the state employees’ and teachers’ unions, is commendably trying to catch up, although the $4.5 billion total liability won’t be funded in anyone’s lifetime.

Remarkably, House and Senate Democrats failed to pass their two highest priority measures, the minimum wage increase and a payroll tax-financed family leave program. Gov. Phil Scott is likely to again veto a minimum wage increase, and probably a payroll tax leave bill. Some House Democrats are starting to listen to small business concerns, and some are worrying about the increased costs to the Medicaid home care budget. There may well be enough of them to join with Republicans to sustain a veto. We’ll find out next year.

The “yield” bill that determines local school property tax rates contained a 1 cent increase in residential and nonresidential yields. As Rob Roper has pointed out, “this is necessary to fund an additional $70.5 million in new spending this year — an increase of 4.5% — for a system that continues to lose student population. K-12 enrollment dropped from 76,220 to 75,510 between the 2016-17 school year and the 2017-18 school  year, continuing a 20-year trend that shows no signs of slowing.” No matter how many students disappear, public school spending will never turn downwards so long as the public sector enjoys its unionized monopoly.

The battle against the Menace of Climate Change proceeded apace, although without the revenues from the failed carbon tax there isn’t much money available. The Legislature voted more subsidies for plug-in electric vehicles “to help Vermonters benefit from electric driving, including Vermont’s most vulnerable.” The transportation bill found $1.8 million to pay for two electric city buses for Burlington. That bill also diverted $5.2 million from fixing deteriorating  highways to subsidizing passenger rail from Rutland to Burlington, certainly one of the state’s least pressing needs.

The proposed doubling of the heating oil tax to fund more home weatherization failed, but the legislators did find $1.7 million to expand this giveaway program, instead of asking the beneficiaries to pay for the weatherization from their energy savings.

Another last-minute provision mandated a study of launching passenger rail between Barre and Montpelier — all of seven miles. That would give wind tower and solar panel mogul David Blittersdorf a chance to turn his five diesel-powered Budd cars into moneymakers instead of museum pieces.

On the plus side, the Legislature gave up trying to impose a tax penalty on Vermonters who haven’t bought state-approved health insurance. All those people have to do is tell the state that they aren’t complying, and the state will assign an outreach person to try to change their minds. On the down side, the Legislature prohibited any new association health plans, because they were letting people escape the clutches of Obamacare.

Thanks to Democratic Sen. Kitchel, Mazza and Ashe, the Senate again refused to accept Rep. George Till’s primary seat belt law, which would allow the cops to stop and ticket any adult driver for not having his or her seat belt buckled.

On the down side, the legislators approved a 24-hour waiting period for a lawful handgun purchase. It’s supposed to reduce suicides, but more likely it will leave a helpless woman defenseless when her angry ex comes by with revenge in mind.

A notably nutty bill is the plastic bag ban. Next year your grocer can’t put your purchases into a one-use plastic bag. Why? Because those bags are made out of natural gas, and we need to burn that natural gas to provide grid backup power to all those wind towers and solar panels that only produce a third of the time. (Actually no one made that argument, but you’d think the climate warriors would rather turn natural gas into plastic bags than burn it and release carbon dioxide.)

Instead of the plastic bag, the store can sell you, for 10 cents, a nice paper bag made by slashing and chipping the forests that the budget bill declares “are important for carbon absorption.”

Bills not acted upon this session are alive for 2020, so we’ll probably see more silly and potentially economy-wrecking climate change brainstorms, at least until the needs of dependent families, Medicaid recipients, deteriorating highways, lake cleanup, retirement funds and other really important causes gain the upper hand in the competition for available funding.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Images courtesy of Bruce Parker/TNR and John McClaughry

5 thoughts on “McClaughry: A Legislative wrap-up for 2019

  1. “The transportation bill found $1.8 million to pay for two electric city buses for Burlington”.

    Those legislators must be out of their minds.
    $1.8 million for TWO electric buses?
    Those must be the most expensive buses in the world.
    Please get the state out of the transportation business, before they bankrupt Vermonters.

    “That bill also diverted $5.2 million from fixing deteriorating highways to subsidizing passenger rail from Rutland to Burlington, certainly one of the state’s least pressing needs”.

    Blittersdorf is still pulling strings in Montpelier.
    He wants to get his ancient museum pieces used in Vermont.
    He picked them up at a junkyard. He calls them railroad cars.

    Why are legislators so stupid to throw good taxpayer money away on a VERY LOW PRIORITY project, that also would require upgrading the tracks and the train/track control systems.

  2. Student population continues to decline and spending continues to rise to accommodate the teachers union so the fat cats running it can justify their high flying standard of living. Nothing new here. It never has been about educating our student population, it’s always been about keeping the rank and file happy.

  3. The Legislative wrap-up for 2019 ??

    When you see the list of foolishness that came out of Montpelier this year, one has
    to wonder what would happen if we held legislators feet to the fire !!

    With Vermont’s Debt, unfunded liabilities, crumbling infrastructure, an opioid crisis
    these ” clowns ” are worried about Plastic Bags & Straws and passing a Pot bill.

    Vermont wake up and send these fools packing, we deserve better.

  4. I read somewhere that Vermont is 8th highest in the nation for real estate taxes, but becomes the third highest as a percentage of income. Legislators often state that it is immoral that people have to choose between paying their electric/oil/food bill to afford their life-saving meds. By the number of forclosures printed in the newspaper weekly the choice, for most people, is more likely to be between their meds and their RE taxes and are likely ending up with neither. Hello! Does anyone in Montpelier think they can just keep spending without cutting and not realize the tax burden is becoming immoral?

  5. Perhaps it is time to limit the amount of time that the legislative body can meet yearly,say thirty days PERIOD and if it has not accomplished what they want to foist on the people it will have to wait. One might think that the budget may take precedence over some of the foolishness occurring in these past legislatures.
    Something to limit the injustice to God,the people and for the good of Liberty.

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