Legislative Deals

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(Host) We’ve heard a lot about cuts that lawmakers had to make during the legislative session. But how about the special deals that legislators doled out? Commentator Allen Gilbert takes a look.

(Gilbert) As the Legislature moved through the final days of this year’s session, lawmakers warned that the state needed to tighten its belt. Tax revenues were dropping. But legislators didn’t talk very much about the tax breaks that they doled out as they headed for adjournment. Somehow, enough money was found to cut special deals that will make most of us dig just a bit deeper into our pockets – despite the tight economic times.

Some of the maneuverings were classic back-room deals. In just a few minutes in the early morning hours during a weekend conference committee meeting, legislative negotiators agreed to a $1.2 million annual tax break for ski areas. They did this by reclassifying the tax category for ski lifts and snow guns, effective in two years — so the actual change in statute seems pretty esoteric. What’s $1.2 million worth? It’s equal to the combined cuts made in vision care for low-income Vermonters, job assistance for young disabled Vermonters, and pharmacy benefits for seniors and others.

The ski deal was part of a package that contained a windfall for residents in Vermont’s property-wealthy towns. If their school undertakes a construction project, residents in these towns will get a tax break. Residents in the remaining towns will pick up the tab.

One legislator was bold enough to declare that he voted for these special breaks because “they didn’t increase taxes.” It’s hard to think that he really believes this. If you give a special break to one group, you take a bit more from someone else. The cost of these special deals, though, is hard to spot because of the way money moves into and out of the state’s various funds.

In addition to granting special deals, the Legislature failed to close numerous tax loopholes. It didn’t restrict private fundraising that property-wealthy towns undertake to avoid paying school taxes. The Legislature did reduce, but didn’t eliminate, the special deal that Vermont investors get on capital gains.

It’s easy to shrug off these actions as just inevitable political maneuvering. But if you’ve heard about the new book by Kevin Phillips, “Wealth and Democracy,” you might begin to see a series of dots that beg to be connected.

Phillips is no raving liberal. He was political strategist to Richard Nixon. Phillips sees a widening gulf between the rich, and everybody else, in the United States. He points out how lobbyists and campaign contributions grease the wheels of both political parties. The interests of ordinary people just don’t get the same consideration as those of the rich, according to Phillips. He worries that democracy is undermined when citizens are treated differently.

We like to think that here in Vermont we’re immune from the power of “moneyed interests.” But every special deal that shifts tax burdens, and every failure to provide adequate health, education, and job services for everyday citizens, is a further step down the road described by Phillips.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.

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