by Carla Occaso and Nat Frothingham
The Bridge interviewed Washington County’s three senators recently to find out what their priorities are for the upcoming legislative session. We asked them each to tackle the topics of education, the economy and jobs, health care, and any other concerns for Vermont this coming year. Themes of reining in spending and cutting down on government employees while trying to preserve services to the poor emerged. While these three senators are seasoned lawmakers, they each hope the new session will bring with it a fresh new wave of ideas to wake up the Legislature to spark a new era of job growth and economic health.
The Bridge Publisher Nat Frothingham and Managing Editor Carla Occaso started out interviewing Senator William Doyle, a Republican, by speaker phone on Monday, Dec. 29.
Sen. William Doyle: I will introduce a bill to recruit international high schoolers. There is a tremendous amount of support for this already. The number of international high school students has increased (by the thousands) in five years. They are being recruited by Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Each student brings in $10,000. The international students can bring new life into the schools. It is one way to take a little pressure off property taxes. That is obviously why I am enthusiastic by the bill.
Nat Frothingham: So let’s go to your committee, which is Education. The city of Montpelier saw a 24-percent increase in Education costs over two years. Is that sustainable in your view?
Doyle: No, it is not.
Frothingham: What proposals are you going to make to address shrinking school enrollment and school spending (staffing) additions?
Doyle: I will ask the people who come into the committee to talk to anyone connected to the issue how they plan on bringing the costs under control. I don’t think you’ll see that much of an increase again.
On The Economy and the Deficit:
Frothingham: I see an economy that has stagnated. The income tax receipts are down. The state is facing a deficit of over $100 million. What is your blueprint for turning things around?
Doyle: I am aware of the fact income taxes are down. It is getting increasingly difficult because of that. And I worry about the loss of population. Obviously, when you lose population, you lose income tax.
Frothingham: Let’s say you are facing a deficit. Would you cut or tax? If you are going to cut, what would you cut specifically? If you are going to tax, who has to pay the extra taxes?
Doyle: That is the job of the appropriations committee from day one. That is where the cuts should be.
Frothingham: State spending is increasing, and state employment is increasing state spending faster than private sector employment and income. Isn’t that why we’re in the mess we’re in?
Doyle: That is unsustainable. I think this new legislature is not going to work in that direction.
On Health Care:
Carla Occaso: The last thing we wanted to ask about is health care. What is your thought on the health care program?
Doyle: As for health care, all I can stay is state employees have an excellent program. I would have moved in that direction. I would have had something that has already worked and built on something that has worked.
Occaso: For everybody?
Doyle: Yes, of course. I would not single out those who have wealth. I would have had something that has worked and built on something that has worked for everyone.
Occaso: Do you think we wasted money?
Doyle: Yes I do.
Frothingham: Why didn’t the Legislature hold the governor’s feet to the fire on this thing? Why did they let this thing go on for so long?
Doyle: Cynthia Browning, the Bennington County legislator, sued for the information and lost. I have great respect for her. The Legislature has read the tea leaves and recognizes the unsustainability of where we are going. I am confident this new legislature will proceed in a way that is very appropriate.
On the afternoon of Dec. 29, Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Progressive/Democrat/Working Families, visited The Bridge offices and spent over an hour with us talking about the issues of the day.
On The Economy:
Frothingham: Government is growing and a deficit is staring us in the face. There certainly are more people in need of food assistance now than I think there were twelve months ago.
Pollina: Over time income tax revenues have not met expectations. Income tax revenues are down because incomes are down. When you have incomes going down there are more deficits. People are not buying goods and services, so local businesses are undermined. Budget deficits lead toward budget cuts, so we are cutting needed services at a time when people need them the most. I am not saying there is an easy way to turn it around, but I think we have not really admitted that this is the problem.
Frothingham: I am a business owner, and I know the economy is flat because advertising is off. That means other business owners are also feeling the stress. What about businesses?
Pollina: The highest income earners have seen their incomes increase, but there are only so many pizzas those people are going to buy. They are going to reinvest added money and buy a car for example. If you give that added income to someone in the middle class or a low-income earner, they are going to spend it on Main Street.
Pollina: If you were to ask merchants on Main Street in Montpelier, or Barre how to hire people and create more jobs and expand their businesses, what they would say is they need more customers. They need local people with money to spend who can come in to support the businesses. They need people to buy their stuff – their goods and services. It plays into the fact that most Vermonters have seen their incomes decline in recent years. Real income is lower today than it was 10 years ago. The most important thing you can do to strengthen the economy is to put money in the pockets of people so they can pay their bills, care for their families, generate tax revenue, and support local businesses.
I am introducing a resolution to get the Senate to go on record expressing concern over declining incomes and increasing income equality, it will say, “Be it resolved that we are not going to support policies that increase the wealth gap.”
Frothingham: Personnel numbers are growing in the school system. The number of students is going down. What should we do?
Pollina: When you look at the cost of living, the cost of doing business, you’ve got to look at schools in a similar way. As long as they are going to have to put diesel fuel in the buses, heat the buildings, provide the food, pay salaries and benefits, maintain the physical plant, there’s all these things that schools do that are fixed costs. It is hard to expect any of those costs to go down over time. I am not saying we shouldn’t be looking at these things or looking at ways to cut costs. I am just saying you have to look at it in the context of declining incomes as well.
When it comes to education, Vermont has a spending problem. We are spending more money than we have. But, is it that we have a spending problem or an income problem? Most Vermonters are glad to support their local schools. But the fact is, costs are going up over time. I don’t expect my plumber to charge less than he or she did ten years ago. I don’t expect a coffee shop to charge me less next year than they do this year. You expect costs to go up because the cost of doing business goes up. But what we should also be able to expect is while costs go up, wages are going up along with it so that we can all keep pace. That is not happening. A lot of people are being left behind. The declining income of Vermonters and the growth in income inequality is really the central issue.
I opposed forced consolidation because there was no evidence presented that it would save money. I do think we should move away from relying on property taxes to pay for education. We developed a convoluted system, and there are a lot of things we are expecting schools to do that we didn’t before. School has become a center for social services. School replaces the family function. I think we need to look at the things schools do.
Still, I think schools are the best investment. What better investment can you make than in your schools?
On Health Care:
Frothingham: What do you have to say about the single payer health care plan?
Pollina: I don’t think the discussion about single payer is over.
Frothingham: Why is it off the table after years and years of study, consultants, and millions of dollars?
Pollina: There was not the willingness to have the debate to raise the revenue to make it work.
Frothingham: I have become a little impatient with the governor for not acting on his promise to share the funding mechanism earlier.
Pollina: The governor decided he didn’t want to move forward with it, but he still has to present the budget, and the Legislature can still move forward and debate it. I am a supporter of single payer. The goal is to get everybody health care that is publicly paid for. I would like to lower or eliminate co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses. I am proposing an additional subsidy that allows you to pay little or no premium at all. We would have to raise the revenue to do that, but it is an affordable step. We are not talking about raising billions of dollars. We are talking about raising revenue that would eliminate premiums and expenses for the middle class.
On Friday, Jan. 2, Sen. Ann Cummings, Democrat, of Montpelier visited The Bridge office. She addressed some of the topics we were asking about. She also explored additional issues that weren’t on our list of questions.
Frothingham: We would like to talk about jobs, the business climate and the economy, schools, and that nexus of issues and problems. State spending has increased faster than the economy has grown. We’re here to listen to you. You have been on the Senate Finance Committee.
On The Economy:
Cummings: Yes, twelve years on the Finance Committee and I chaired it for ten. The more I am in this business, the more I see that everything is interconnected. We are all together, and you can’t do one thing without impacting the other. Education is tied to the economy. The state budget is tied to the economy. We are all tied to the national economy, and as much as we would like to be an independent nation, we are not.
The economy is cyclical. It goes up. It goes down. Normally, Vermont lags a year or so behind the nation. It has not come back at the rate it normally does.
When the economy is down there is more demand for state services. When the demand for services goes up, our cost rises. We are seeing the results of the wealth gap, and people in this state, especially middle-class, working class people, are feeling at the edge. Wages have been stagnant for ten years. For the last nine years, the cost of heating has gone up. I don’t know how people feed their families.
Cummings: Property tax is the focal point for a lot of built-up frustration. We do have a problem with the property tax. It is rising unsustainably, even in a good economy. We’re going to need to work with local towns and local school boards to more effectively deliver education in this state.
I think the state is catching a lot of the blame for rising property taxes, which frustrates us, because the local voters vote the property taxes. We just vote in the tax increase to cover it. We haven’t put as much money into it as we did in the past because we haven’t had the money.
What Can Happen When You Don’t Raise Taxes?
Cummings: I served on the child protection committee this summer looking into any ways we failed the two children who died.
Frothingham: That gives you a special understanding.
Cummings: In my darker moments, I say, “It takes a whole community to raise a child… it takes a community to kill a child.” The economy was down, people were hurting. We didn’t raise taxes. People didn’t want us to raise taxes. If you voted to raise taxes, you didn’t get elected, so you didn’t raise taxes. You made cuts. You were told that we can handle the cuts, but when you look at it, you can only do more for less for so long. We put our front line social workers in an untenable position. When they were finally allowed to talk to us, they said, “Yes. We are triaging. We are only able to do the most serious cases.” You can’t handle double the caseload that is recommended and do it well. This is all a result of not raising taxes.
Carla Occaso: I think you pretty much covered everything except health care just then. I don’t think I heard you say anything specific about jobs.
Cummings: For the last year and a half I spent time on the (committee of) economic development. We had employers saying they have jobs but cannot get people qualified to fill them. I just got a list of two-year degrees that help recipients get jobs that pay over $50,000 a year. They are in medical technology and technology in general. Machines do a lot of the manufacturing people used to do. What they can’t find is people to service the machines. They need people who take advanced math and science. We tried getting the higher education communities to work with the business communities so we make sure the money we are spending is training people for jobs that are really there.
On the Decline of Newspapers:
Frothingham: There is a lot of interdependence. I don’t think it is any secret we are trying to keep this little paper open.
Cummings: Every newspaper I know is struggling to keep its doors open. The decline of newspapers has an impact on the State House. In (the House Committee on) Economic Development, we have found that people do not know what is going on. It used to be they always knew if we did something. We worked on a bill called “fair share,” which required state employees pay a share of dues even though they were not part of the union. We then found that state employees were coming in complaining. This was unusual. Well, there had been no press stories. They didn’t know about the bill. In the past we never had to worry about telling people what we were doing. Another example. Some new rules went into effect two years ago about the buying and selling of precious metals. The intent was to try to cut down on burglars robbing a house, selling the precious metals to a jeweler, and the gold or silver being on its way to be melted down in less than 24 hours. Mainstream people who do a lot of trading in precious metals did not know that they were supposed to be following the new rules. There had been no news stories, so how would they know?
There is a communications gap. And there is still a whole generation of people who like to sit down with their coffee and read their newspaper. Somehow, holding that screen in front of you doesn’t do it for them. But that decline in the fifth estate is having an impact on the democratic process in my view. When you get a new reporter who doesn’t know the history of the issue, you don’t get a very complete picture. I remember the days when you couldn’t take a breath on the city council. Reporters used to listen with a glass up against the door.
I recently sat there one night and watched the sheriff serve all us council members subpoenas, and the press corps never asked what was going on. The sheriff came in a suit, not his uniform, but no-one ever said, “What’s he doing?” Obviously they didn’t know he was the sheriff.
On Health Care:
Cummings: I supported the single-payer approach. The cost of health care is outstripping economic growth. That is a problem that is not going away. Having spent the years I’ve spent as a member of the national conference of insurance legislators, I can’t say that I am surprised the numbers didn’t work.
We looked at a system at one point called “play or pay.” You say “We can’t make you join, but you’re going to pay.” We got experts from all over the country on the phone. In my reading this was precedent setting because it is a guaranteed lawsuit. We’d be the first to do it, and that makes you think twice about it. But if you can’t include all those younger, healthier people, then you’ve got a much more expensive pool.
Occaso: So, what kind of system would work? You are talking about what wouldn’t work.
Cummings: What (the governor) looked at was a platinum plan. It was top of the line. Rather than start at a level where someone would have to give up something, you start at a level where everyone would get something.
The other thing we are doing is working on switching the payment model. We keep expanding the test cases trying to have a whole-health home where one doctor, your doctor, manages your health care and gets paid a certain amount to keep you healthy.
Costs have continued to rise. I am not sure there are enough wealthy people and wealthy businesses to tax the solution.