Punt and Study?

House Speaker, Jill Krowinski’s difficult decision to do a punt-and-study of the looming pension crisis, about which we have effectively been advised for almost a decade, forewarns us of some intrinsic flaws in legislating today. It is a reminder of how difficult reactive rather than strategic governing is. Without early and effective interventions, problems metastasize and so managing them becomes much more difficult and therefore painful.

Parenting might be said to be the human analogue. We want our children to love us. Our adult insecurities crave their adulation. The same is true with politicians and their supporters. In the case of politicians, adulation manifests itself in votes. But like a legislator, a parent’s duty is not to take the easier, softer way that results in adulation but instead to raise resilient, responsible adults. The parallel for the legislator is the duty to make the difficult decisions that underlie a just and sustainable society for its citizens.

It’s rightly said that leadership can be lonely and painful. In and of themselves, the tenets of leadership are not complex, but following them is. My own leadership experience has been limited to the business and non-profit sectors but even there I can attest to the pain and challenge. I’ve never sought public office, perhaps because I knew that leading a society rather than a business or organization is the most challenging of leadership positions.

So, what in the architecture of governing has deteriorated to get us to this point? Or has time and progress simply sped past our slower pace of governing?

The deliberations and decisions that the citizen-legislators of my youth, most of whom were farmers (which determined the legislative schedule), occurred more in real time, and our elected representatives had time to debate and compromise before fashioning new legislation. That pace has changed today. Problems appear and escalate in an accelerating timeframe, so the work of our legislators often occurs far downstream and compounds rapidly over time.

We must ask ourselves these questions or we risk foundering on the shoals of dysfunction, the worst damage of which becomes the loss of faith and trust in government. I think we can all see this happening around the country, but I worry most when I see it in our young people.

The decision to “study” the pension crisis comes after a decade of study and public discussion by revered civic leader Dave Coates and another half-decade by Vermont State treasurer, Beth Pearce. What don’t we know? We understand that change threatens the privilege of those whose lives will be effected by it. We know that a compromise of shared pain between Vermont’s 320,000 tax payers and Vermont’s roughly 20,000 state employees and teachers in the system will be the outcome, so what are we waiting for? Everyone will have to contribute to the compromise. Further delay will lead to a collapse of the system and everyone will lose.

In another example, the decision by then-Vermont State College (VSC) Chancellor Jeb Spaulding to toss a grenade into the fiscal chaos developing for at least five years in the VSC System is yet another issue punted-and-studied. Again the question becomes: when will we act? The work being done is valuable but comes late in the game, And when the necessary compromise is proposed, will executive and legislative leadership have the courage to act? Even though we all understand that failure to do so will ensure a greater loss.

Modernizing, simplifying, and improving the Vermont Tax code is another much-studied issue (in which I participated in 2010-11). We now have a new slate of recommendations from yet a new commission a decade later! No doubt the upshot will be another set of solutions that will, of necessity, produce “winners and losers.” But the question remains: will we have the courage to act on them? Most of what came out of the earlier commission gathers dust in the Vermont State Archive in Middlesex.

Again, change creates winners and losers, but failure to change makes us all losers.

Like many, I’ve thought long and hard about the issues underlying our crisis of governing. Here are some observations that may or may not be helpful.

  • Legislation means taking risks, creative destruction (as opposed to decay), shared pain, eliciting and paying attention to all points of view.
  • Solutions imposed from a “study committee” face stiff headwinds, especially from those for whom change threatens existing privilege.
  • Late legislation that’s reactive to systemic dysfunction often makes matters worse.
  • Change must begin with a review of shared principles, values, and objectives. These become the common ground on which new legislation is founded and later form the substantive defense for that change.
  • Most substantive issues are not partisan, they’re about loss or gain of privilege. Liberal-conservative name-calling is the fallback of those too lazy to listen and learn from one another.
  • Leadership is consensus, not unanimous agreement. A good leader gives voice to dissent but derives consensus, and a responsible colleague supports consensus even in dissent.
  • Life is complex, as are the issues we face. Fear and insecurity seek the comfort of black and white answers, whereas most durable solutions are intrinsically imperfect and lie in the complex middle ground.
  • Cost-efficiency always supports upstream investment rather than downstream remediation cost – “an ounce of prevention…” Allocating more money to try and repair the damage from a broken system rather than addressing its causes always ends up costing more.

We need to rethink together how we design, build and maintain a just, sustainable society for ourselves. Money can either solve or exacerbate a problem. If it’s founded in shared principles, values, and objectives and used to redesign process and address root causes, it’s money well-spent.

If it’s used to patch the damage from a broken system, there will never be enough money in our small state.

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