By Guy Page
The May 22 column of Seven Days political writer John Walters deviates from the usual recap of the week’s politics and personalities. In “Cat’s Caucus: The Vermont Legislature in Vonnegut Land,” he uses words made up by novelist Kurt Vonnegut – wampeters, granfalloons, and fomas – to describe associations, unwritten rules, and coping mechanisms under the Golden Dome. It’s a fresh approach and a great read.
The column opens with news about a Senate resolution honoring the 65th anniversary of Dick Mazza’s General Store in Malletts Bay.
Now, this is a subject I know something about. I grew up in Malletts Bay. During my 1960’s childhood Dick (better known to locals then as “Richie”) Mazza’s General Store was both tourist/boater quickstop and the local grocery store for our growing bedroom community. When I was six I stole his penny candy. Thirty years later as the publisher of the Colchester Chronicle, I sold him advertising. These days any trip to our family homestead cookout starts with a stop at Mazza’s for a pound of hamburger.
Mazza’s Store hamburger. Oh. My. Goodness. On the grill it neither shrinks nor spits, just cooks up brown and tender. This is no accident. It’s always been this way. Back in the day, Dick and his meat manager Jerry were zealots about trimming the fat and gristle. They sharpened their knives and cut, cut, cut. And then looked some more and cut some more. Mazza hamburger never hit the sales counter until it was truly as advertised: “melts in your mouth, not in your pan.”
Awkward segue to the Vermont State Budget. Total government spending in Vermont from $5.6 billion in 2016 to $5.9 million in 2019 to $6.1 billion in 2020, as recommended yesterday by a Senate/House appropriations conference committee. (Those figures are not final and may increase depending on outcome of paid family leave or minimum wage legislation.) Most state revenue comes from Vermont-paid taxes and fees. Already the second oldest and 23rd most state-local taxed U.S. state, we can’t expect a cavalry of young, new working taxpayers to ride to our rescue. (Although once in a while an extremely wealthy person dies in Vermont and leaves a fortuitous windfall death tax.)
So when you can’t raise more revenue, cut spending. Vermonters could put their wise old heads together, sharpen the knives, and trim the budgetary fat and gristle. In this I see two challenges:
First, the state budget is not transparent to the layman, unlike the Town Reports voters peruse at Town Meeting every year. Instead it’s a dense thicket of numbers and less-than-descriptive cost centers. Building a budget is like a constructing a pyramid. Directed by overseers, thousands of minions lay thousands of blocks of line item expenditures. The higher you go, the fewer specific items you see. Pretty soon all you see are departmental and agency projections and maybe a few big, new, highly popular features.
Second – to continue the Egyptian analogy – budget builders are ambitious about their pyramids. Sci-fi author Robert Heinlein called his saying “nothing ever gets build on schedule or within budget” Cheops Law, after the pyramid of the same name. Pull harder, fellows, we’ve got a quota to fill.
So when some poor Vermonter asks his legislator, “can’t you cut something from that budget?” he/she gets this question for an answer: “what should we cut?” The lack of transparency makes it hard to come up with specific, comprehensive, transformative cuts. And a body of people anxious to build the Best Pyramid Ever might not be eager to hear the answers, especially when superficial and underinformed.
The Vermont Legislature loves advisory working groups. Every year it creates several to investigate and report on a pressing state problem. For example, the first bill enacted into law this year created a 20-member advisory board (budget: $16,000) to probe local school districts for ethnic and social bias.
So here’s an idea: A group of non-partisan, informed, independent, unpaid Vermonters – maybe former legislators, business people, school board members, people with budget-building experience and willingness to cut fat and gristle – could form an independent, non-funded, 2021 Vermont State Budget Advisory Committee. They could shadow the budget building process – beginning this summer and hanging tough right through next May. They could offer running commentary to lawmakers, the media and the interested public on how best to use taxpayers’ money to promote the general welfare of all Vermonters.
Hard work? Sure. But imagine the customer satisfaction: leaner taxes and satisfying state services mean happy taxpayers. And, a tax dollar that doesn’t shrink when it hits the hot grill of state government.
Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.