“The Affordability Agenda”

On its surface, the term “affordability agenda,” often used by our Governor and legislators, makes sense… but it’s important to dig in and examine the politics behind it.

A recent feature article in England’s Guardian headlined “Unhoused children are at high risk in rural Vermont,” reports Vermont has the second-highest per capita homeless rate in the nation.  It further shows that a majority of Vermonters can’t afford to live here in reasonable middle-class comfort.

Unfortunately, the administration and some legislators choose to see this only as the result of taxes, fees, and regulatory restrictions rather than inadequate investments in people, families, and communities.

We can all agree that many Vermonters struggle to access affordable housing, healthcare, education, healthy food, and environmentally safe living spaces. But some among us believe that this is the result only of “confiscatory” governmental burdens. This largely disproven ideology dating from the Newt Gingrich, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher era was inspired by the economics philosopher Milton Friedman and has been widely disproven, if not debunked, by clear-headed economists and historical experience.

There are indeed cases where governmental priorities are in conflict, as in zoning, historic preservation, housing, agricultural subsidies, or treating substance abuse disorder as a criminal offense rather than a treatable disease. But if our goal is to better manage government spending, some of us would argue that Vermont will never be able to afford to fully remediate the downstream results of inadequate upstream social, economic and environmental investments.

By way of examples:

  • our hysteria about perceived ̶  if not always actual   ̶  rising crime rates spurring a need for more policing and incarceration facilities,
  • our call for more inpatient hospital beds to accommodate the rising dysphoria of our young people rather than addressing the economic, educational, and social causes,
  • the endless regulatory handouts to Vermont’s fourteen hospitals to support their “non-profit” enterprises, rather than looking at a cost-efficient redesign, with upfront investments in local primary care,
  • the fact that we now spend more money on special education than on education itself, even as there is a statewide decline in student population and an aging population,
  • the hue and cry for “childcare facilities” as we shutter community schools,
  • our failure to end the application of neonicotinoids, glyphosate, and chemical fertilizers to our soil, water, and air  ̶   all illegal in the E.U.   ̶    to sustain a dying commodity dairy industry.

What if we tried to carefully phase out investments in remediating bad outcomes and instead seeded investments upstream into education, prevention, early intervention and treatment, all to reduce the chaotic downstream outcomes we’ll never be able to afford to fix?

What’s the reality behind the “affordability agenda?”

According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) 2018 Tax Inequality Index, Vermont’s state and local tax system does not worsen income inequality and ranks 49th on the index (2d best nationally). Although Vermont has a large income gap between lower- and middle-income taxpayers as compared to the wealthy, it is somewhat narrower after state and local taxes.

In 1953, Vermont state and local taxes were 9.9% of income, the same as the national median. According to ITEP, Vermont’s current tax burden, 70 years later, is around 10.1%.

Furthermore, the nonpartisan Public Assets Institute’s 2019 State of Working Vermont indicates from federally supplied data that Vermont’s tax system is minimally regressive, i.e. is based on a taxpayer’s ability to pay.

And as regards “burdensome regulation,” I’m a retired businessman, co-founder of four Vermont businesses, and a former chair of the VT. Business Roundtable. I’m familiar with regulation. Like everyone, I occasionally ran afoul of it, but on the whole, these were needed “rules of the road” I could count on   ̶   clear guidelines for business conduct. I just wanted them to be strategic rather than micro-managerial… and generally they were.

Taxation and regulation will always be with us. They should be. The question is how do we use both to really improve the lives and well-being of Vermonters?

The divisive part about the “affordability agenda” is that for conservatives it means excessive government burdens, while for liberals it means inadequate government funding of necessary social investments.

Ironically, as it turns out, liberals and conservatives want the same outcome. What unites us is a shared desire to lower the cost-burden of government and to invest our taxes in the most cost-efficient ways which surely means reducing the downstream expense of trying to fix what’s broken.

We can get there together by making wiser, more cost-efficient upstream investments in Vermonters, their families and communities.

Let’s take the consultant-recommended $160M investment in a new Vermont prison and spend it upstream, educating and supporting families and communities to reduce the economic causes of criminal behavior. Let’s use the vacant dorm space at our colleges and universities to house, educate, and job-train non-violent offenders.

Let’s invest in community-based, primary-care health centers that integrate trauma-informed counseling and family-support services in physical, mental and dental health rather than continuing to pour ever larger amounts of money into our expansive hospital enterprises where the cost of treatment is much higher.

Let’s listen to our young people to better understand their “mental illness.” Is it really clinical mental illness or is it circumstantial depression caused by our lack of vision and care for their world and their future?

Let’s rethink public education, sustaining our existing network of community schools by opening them to children from age six-months onward. Let’s enlist the 500 students in the Early Childhood Education curriculum at Community College of Vermont (CCV) and the 36 Early Care and Learning Partnership Nurturing Care graduates of a partnership between the Addison County Parent/Child Center, and Castleton University, Middlebury College, and CCV, pay them as the professionals they are, and bring them into our public schools.

Let’s invest in   ̶   and buy from   ̶   local family farms that nourish and feed our communities instead of trying to sustain a dying commodity agriculture industry. Dairy, herding/flocking, orcharding, and truck-gardening are all locally sustainable without the chemical applications required for monocropping or burning the diesel fuel needed to transport produce across the country.

Let’s make upstream investments in effective programs that refocus agricultural enterprise towards a safe food supply and a livable environment. The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Farm-to-Plate initiative is such an initiative and is already making a difference. It and other local food-system initiatives warrant our continued upstream investment in the future of Vermont’s food systems.

And, yes, let’s regulate the chemicals that poison our water, soils, and air as much of the rest of the developed world has had the wisdom to do.

Vermonters of diverse political stripes actually want the same outcome. Non-partisan leadership could bring us together, but the politics of how we get there is what divides us.

Surely, Vermont’s current $8.4B budget for its 646,000 people    ̶    $13,000 per Vermonter    ̶    is enough to begin a shift to more cost-efficient investments in our people, families, and communities and to realize a shared understanding of “The Affordability Agenda.”

Let’s focus on a shared goal of lowering the cost burden of government by making more cost-efficient investments. They will make us a better state economically, socially, and environmentally.

Surely it’s time to shed our political ideologies, leave our tribes, and boldly take the risk of talking to and listening to one another to find workable solutions to our many challenges.

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