Op-Ed: Something to write home about, Sen. McCormack legislative report

Returning to Montpelier

It’s fashionable to see government as a swamp in need of draining, and to see politicians as inherently corrupt, but I have a deep fondness and respect for the Vermont Legislature and for my colleagues of various parties and opinions. It was good to return to our beautiful capital and our work the first day. The main event of the week, though, was the Governor’s State of the State address.

State of the State

Seventeen years ago, I was freshman Senator Phil Scott’s first committee chair, and I’m accustomed to working with him cooperatively even when we don’t agree. Gov. Scott’s State of the State address expressed those same Vermont values of civility, reason, compromise, and good will across differences of opinion.

We agree on many things: maintaining our excellent bond rating, disciplined appropriation of tax dollars, affordability, care of the environment, care of our most vulnerable, a robust economy. I especially applaud the governor for joining with other states in doing what can be done at the state level to honor the Paris Accord on Global Warming. I expect good will to continue to prevail as our Democratic Legislature and our Republican Governor work through the daunting issues of the strange place our nation has become.

Funding?

That said, I do wonder how the governor proposes to achieve his worthy goals and keep to his anti-tax anti-fee policy. Greater efficiency is desirable, of course, but the idea can only be pushed so far. There is a popular notion of lazy bureaucrats wasting time at the water cooler, but I know our state employees to be dedicated and hard working. Realistically, “greater efficiency” makes for overflowing inboxes, which makes for slow government responses to citizens’ legitimate needs.

Senate Health and Welfare Committee

In the mornings I serve on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee (SH&W). The priority on SH&W is universal primary care. I’ve long argued that comprehensive, universal, single payer healthcare is the only system that works, that “moderate,” “compromise” systems give us market systems that violate market principles. But, recognizing the political reality (unpredictable Trumpist chaos, and uncertain federal funding) that single payer won’t be happening this year, universal primary care could be the best bang for the buck. Besides the humane and scientific advantages of primary good, it will save money in the long run.

We grappled with opioid addiction last session, tightening up on prescriptions of pain killers. But until we appropriate enough funding to eliminate waiting lists for drug rehabilitation, the problem will persist. Actually, it will persist anyway, considering the power of addiction and the compulsive behaviors of addicted people. We spend many times more on addiction recovery efforts than on addiction prevention, but I think prevention is a better area on which to focus. The first use of an addictive drug is not compulsive, addictive behavior. It’s a volitional and avoidable act. Dissuading young people from their first use of opioids is, I think, a better use of our anti-drug efforts.

Senate Appropriations Committee

The Senate Appropriations Committee, SAC, is usually thought of as a political plumb, a place of power in a world where money talks. I am awed to participate in managing billions of dollars of the people’s money. But it feels less powerful when there isn’t enough money. Hard as it is though, we must join in writing the Fiscal Year 2019 budget. As my mother used to say, “Where there’s no choice, there’s no problem.”

Under the Vermont Constitution, money bills originate in the House of Representatives, the body closest to the people. The Governor’s proposed budget is the template from which the House works. (Though we were all taught in middle school that the legislative branch tells the executive what to do, the executive tells the legislature what it is we should tell them.) After the House votes out a budget, it will come to the Senate where it will go to the SAC, so we are already studying the FY2019 budgets of each agency in anticipation of the bill.

But first, we must consider the FY2018 Budget Adjustment bill. I’m sometimes asked, sometimes with a note of annoyance in the voice, why we need to adjust the budget at all. “Why can’t you get it right the first time?”

The reason is that budgets are not based on certain economic predictions, which don’t exist, but on projections, extrapolations from what we know at the time to what appears most likely to happen in the unknowable future. Some expected revenues are less than expected, some more. Some expenses are greater than expected, some less. So, after the midpoint of the fiscal year we adjust, true up, the budget to reflect those changes.

The overarching issue, though, is Washington. A third of Vermont’s funding comes from the Federal Government. As the implications of Federal policies become better understood, we must determine where the shortfalls and unmet needs are, and whether and how Vermont can make up the loss to our people.

My email is rmccormack@leg.state.vt.us, my State House phone is 802-828-2228 (Sgt-at-Arms), and my cell phone is 802-793-6417.

Article written by Sen. Dick McCormack, Windsor District.

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