Times Argus Editorial: Legislature Leads

From the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus

The Legislature has done a good job so far smoothing the rough edges of proposals emanating from the Shumlin administration and injecting common sense where the administration fell short.

One of the surprising stories of the present legislative session has been the failure of Gov. Peter Shumlin to accurately read either the times we are living in or the thinking of the Legislature.

As the week drew to a close the Senate was putting finishing touches on its version of welfare reform. Shumlin had pushed a bill imposing a five-year cap on benefits received by jobless people, and the House had modified his proposal, keeping the cap but making it less cumbersome. The Senate modified the bill further, pushing back its effective date by a year, among other changes.

The idea was to address the freeloader problem, people who are inclined to live off welfare without making a serious effort to find work. The state’s Reach Up program is designed to move people from welfare to work, and it is largely successful. Only a small percentage of Reach Up participants stay in the program as long as five years; most have found work by the end of 18 months.

But the attitude of the few who proclaim their unwillingness to work is offensive to the public, undermining support for welfare as a whole, and offensive as well to legislators. Shumlin hoped to address the problem by imposing the five-year cap, but advocates for the poor have made a persuasive case that a fixed deadline could create havoc for a certain number of troubled families who have had a hard time securing a job and keeping it. Accordingly, the Legislature has added a variety of safeguards to make sure that true hardship cases do not absorb even more hardship because of the five-year limit.

Shumlin and the Legislature are on a more serious collision course when it comes to issues of taxes and the budget. Shumlin has insisted that he does not support increases to broad-based taxes, and yet the Legislature has defied him in a number of ways. The clash between the executive and Legislature has not been a particularly harsh one, however.

Far harsher differences prevailed in 2009. That was the year when Gov. James Douglas carried out the historic act of vetoing the budget passed by the Legislature. It was the first time a governor had done so. Another historic first occurred when the Legislature reconvened in a special session in June and overrode his veto.

A big difference between now and then is that Douglas was a Republican governor, and the Legislature was dominated by Democrats, Shumlin among them. Legislators were not particularly sensitive to Douglas’ demands that they be even more strict on tax and budget hikes than they had been, and they were not afraid to cause him the embarrassment of seeing his veto overridden.

Differences were harsher, too, back in the 1990s when Howard Dean, the Democratic governor, felt compelled to stand up against liberal Democrats in the Legislature. Part of the reason was that the state was just emerging from a recession and budget deficits that had required serious budget constraints. Also, Dean was more of a political Lone Ranger than Shumlin, who for years was a fixture of the Legislature. It is hard to imagine Shumlin issuing bitter denunciations of his former colleagues.

And yet they have challenged him in a number of areas, particularly on tax policy, where Shumlin has betrayed the coloration of a Romney-like Republican, defending the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the working poor. The last few years have revealed to us the way the tax system and the laws of the nation have stacked the economy in favor of the wealthy, creating an income gap that is damaging to lives and to the economy as a whole.

Sen. Tim Ashe, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, zeroed in on tax breaks enjoyed by the wealthy as a way to secure necessary revenues. The Senate has also kept a tax on bottled water, which is a sound environmental step, though it has put aside the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which would have been a sound public health step.

Shumlin gained popularity as a liberal on hot-button issues — Vermont Yankee, health care, marriage equality, marijuana decriminalization, death with dignity. But the economic issues that surfaced this year have demanded that he recognize issues of economic injustice. He has been slow to recognize those needed steps, and the Legislature has done well to show him the way.