Capitol Recap: The constitutional arguments for — and against — tax increases in Vermont
Republican Gov. Phil Scott has made it crystal clear to Democratic lawmakers that he won’t support any proposals this year that require a tax hike on Vermonters.
The Legislature isn’t exactly heeding that call, though, and lawmakers are poised to pass bills that raise new revenues for child care, paid family and medical leave and universal school meals.
Political debates over taxation aren’t anything new. In fact, it turns out that the state’s founding document explicitly addresses when it’s OK for government to take money from individuals to support the public good.
On this week’s edition of the Capitol Recap, Vermont Public’s Jenn Jarecki talks with reporter Peter Hirschfeld about the constitutional underpinnings of the debates you’re hearing in the Legislature this year. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: Pete, where exactly do we see the issue of taxation addressed in the Constitution?
Peter Hirschfeld: It’s in Article 9, and a lot of lawmakers know it well.
Windsor County Sen. Alison Clarkson used to serve in the House Committee on Ways and Means, which is the committee that has jurisdiction over tax policy. This provision in Article 9 is something that Clarkson used to write on a whiteboard in the Ways and Means committee room at the beginning of every session, so that it would be a sort of North Star for the committee as they contemplated their work:
“... and previous to any law being made to raise a tax, the purpose for which it is to be raised ought to appear evident to the Legislature to be of more service to community than the money would be if not collected.’”
So elected officials are constitutionally authorized to impose taxes, but only so long as they think government can do more good with the money than if it stayed with the people they’re collecting it from.
Clarkson says it’s a useful reminder for her that the power to tax is something elected officials can’t take lightly.
"And that it’s incumbent on Vermont to only ask for fees or taxes when the Legislature feels that money is essential to enable a public good," Clarkson said, "and that it will do more good in the public purse than in an individual’s purse."
How does that constitutional language figure into lawmakers’ deliberations over an issue like paid family and medical leave, for example?
For a lot of them, this constitutional language, and how they interpret that language of course, is the deciding factor in how they come down on an issue such as paid leave.
Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser is the chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means. She says taxes, and what they represent, is the reason she got into public service. And she says how and when to tax is in some ways the most important job that a body like the Vermont Legislature undertakes.
“It’s why we have civilization. And taxes, and the collective raising of revenue, is how we fund a civilization. It’s the collective good," Kornheiser said. "And so when I think about a program such as universal family medical leave insurance or our public school system, these are pieces of our community infrastructure that we agree we are each better off with our neighbor having than if we didn't."
Everybody probably agrees that it was smart thing to raise taxes to pay for the construction of the road that allows them to travel from their house to work, right? To Kornheiser’s mind, giving new parents 12 weeks to bond with a newborn is also an essential need. Making sure parents have a safe place to send their kids when they go to work is an essential need. And since everybody in the state is better off when those essential needs are met, lawmakers such as Kornheiser say it’s incumbent on the Legislature to fund them in the same way it does roads and bridges.
But Pete, there are some elected officials — like Phil Scott — who read the same language in the Constitution that Emilie Kornheiser has, and have a very different interpretation of what it means for a program like paid leave.
Absolutely — Franklin County Sen. Randy Brock doesn’t disagree with Emilie Kornheiser about the benefits of paid leave, or of child care. But he points to another provision in the Constitution, in Article 18, that directs government to perform its work with an eye toward “frugality.”
And Brock says that just because something is essential, it doesn’t mean government needs to be the entity that provides that essential service to the people.
“You have all kinds of things that we can think about that may be essential elements, but it doesn’t mean that government has to be the one to pay for it," Brock said. "And there I think there’s that balance between individual rights and responsibilities, and the responsibility of government to provide goods, services or benefits to individuals, and that’s a judgement call that we make.”
The fact that it’s a judgment call is what makes these conversations so complex and interesting. There are policy considerations at play in the debate this session over child care and paid leave. There are political considerations at play for sure.
But it is also a question of philosophy — a question about the role of government in the lives of the people it serves. That element can get lost in the frenzy of the moment. But it’s a useful reminder that the questions elected officials are grappling with now are part the nearly 250-year-old process of us figuring out who we are as a state.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld: