Our Opinion: No need for budget drama

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Earlier this week, State Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe sent Gov. Phil Scott a politely worded but fairly scathing rebuke of Scott's announced intention to veto the budget and tax bill approved by the Legislature, and shared it with the media.

Scott shared his response letter with the media as well, in which he explained his reasoning for vetoing the budget and promoting his education funding plan as a means of reducing the property tax burden.

At least taxpayers know that the official stationery they paid for is being used.

In his letter, Ashe points out there was consensus across party lines on the budget that the Legislature sent to Scott's desk, and that he should sign it into law. That request might not be politically realistic, but Ashe is correct in asserting that the budget had tripartisan support. The spending plan passed unanimously in the state Senate, and 117-14 in the House, with about half of the House's GOP members voting in favor of the plan.

The Legislature's budget package raises the property tax rate 2.5 cents per $100 in assessed value for residential rates and 5 cents per $100 for non-residential rates. It's a small hike, in line with the rate of growth most local school boards delivered at Scott's request, but a hike nonetheless. And Scott won election by asserting the need to make Vermont more affordable.

Given that so many Republicans in the House, and every Republican in the Senate, voted yes for a budget that raises taxes, it would seem that Scott and his fellow Legislative Republicans aren't singing from the same sheet music. And it would be awfully strange, to put it mildly, if that many House Republicans were to suddenly change their votes to "no" to sustain Scott's veto.

In his reply, Scott said the Legislature has two choices: Work with him to reach a deal, or pass the budget over his objections.

"Over the last two years, I could not have been clearer about my unwillingness to raise taxes and fees. I believe Vermonters need a break," Scott wrote back to Ashe. "That's why I cannot support raising property taxes by $33 million this year — especially when we have $160 million more in revenue this year versus last year. So, in case there is any ambiguity on the part of the Senate or House about my position, I will reiterate here: If the Legislature wants to raise taxes this year, it will have to override a veto of the budget and tax bill."

But keep this in mind: All of this foot stomping, albeit through politely worded letters, is just the start of the negotiation process. That's often how the process works, with compromise emerging somewhere near the middle.

We do, however, agree with Ashe that using $33 million of a $58 million windfall from the tobacco settlement to pay off a tax increase is not fiscally prudent. It would be nice to avoid a property tax increase, but any responsible financial planner would strongly advise paying down debt first. The state should do the same.

What's most frustrating is all this is happening a little more than a month before the new fiscal year begins, instead of months ago. This Montpelier drama could have and should have been avoided, and we are in agreement with Ashe that this isn't the best way to do things.

That's where Ashe's letter leveled its most serious criticism, suggesting the Scott administration "is facing the consequences of its disengaged approach to governing."

The Administration "dropped in at the zero hour and attempted to render the previous four months of work meaningless," Ashe said. "This represents a serious departure from decades of cooperative work between the Executive and Legislative branches. Hopefully in 2019 the Administration, regardless of the outcome of the November election, will break this two year pattern."

In much the same way that a teacher or a coach challenges a student to improve his or her preparation and effort, that section of Ashe's letter can be interpreted as a message to Scott that there's room for improvement, especially when it comes to working with the Legislature.

It might be politically crafty for Scott to offer late-term proposals that put the Legislature on its heels. But it also results in confrontational political theater that needlessly frays the personal relationships that make compromise possible. Scott should know well from his time in the state Senate that as a Republican in Vermont, he has to work with Democrats and Progressives to get things done.

Scott strikes us as a reasonable man, given his willingness to sign stronger gun safety laws and risk the ire of the state's gun lobby. We do believe he has the best interests of Vermont at heart. But stronger dedication to engaging in the process earlier in the term might have produced a better compromise than he's likely to get out of a special session — which could be no compromise at all.

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