Nothing works for ever. Things run down and need repair. Aspects lose their utility. Sometimes they must be overhauled.
Vermont has reached that point in two critical areas. One is the architecture of government agencies and two is our tax code.
Let me express my bias from the outset so you can either continue or go shovel snow. I’m a proponent of both government and taxation. I believe in the capacity of government to benefit society and the economy. I believe in taxation. I just want both to function efficiently and accountably. In Vermont today neither do.
As a rule, Vermonter’s know where they’re going and what they believe in. We see it every day in the vibrant work done by citizens at the community level. And we need more of that dynamic in Montpelier, where the scale is greater and the risks are higher. We need our leadership in the legislature and executive branches to focus on the ailing machinery of government and less on running for office.
Nor do we need to study this further. We could re-insulate all our state buildings with the thoughtful, un-deployed studies done by Vermonters on efficiency in government and other strategies. We just need the legislature and executive branches to join forces and do the work.
From a vision for what we wish to become, we must set economic and social objectives, we must monitor and communicate our progress with data that holds us accountable. We can’t tweak our way to success anymore.
Our willy-nilly tax code is an accumulation of temporal revenue imperatives built up over time that now discourage growth and initiative. Don’t for a minute think it’s just rich Vermonters who exile themselves for six months and a day to save on taxes as “part-time residents.” Many pensioners must do the same to call Vermont home. But apart from the arbitrary way they’re assessed, taxes are a necessary and appropriate investment in social, economic and environmental wellbeing – unless they’re spent inefficiently. We need a strategic redesign of the tax code that’s consistent with Vermont’s values and future. Taxation should encourage personal and business behaviors that strengthen us and dissuade those that weaken us. Today’s tax code does more to weaken us.
Likewise, the architecture of government agencies reflects what we have been rather than what we’re becoming. It is time for an overhaul that asks why we do this this way, or better, why we do it all. For example, do we need to put so many people in jail? And we must review again what services for-profit or not-for-profit entities might do more efficiently. We need to look at what efficiencies could be achieved online.
We can no longer afford to study and tweak. We must begin the hard work of redesign with transparency and accountability and, make no mistake, it’ll be hard and painful, but by doing nothing, we recede into our own fading past and will have to live on it rather than creating and living off a bright future.