One day you jump into your car and turn the key. After ten seconds of chugging over, the engine finally catches and with big puff of blue-black smoke and a din that sounds like an asthmatic lion, off you go. 15 minutes later, as you sit on the side of the interstate listening to the tick-tock of your emergency flashers and waiting for AAA, it becomes undeniably clear: it’s time for a new car.
What’s the first thing you do? Do you call a friend to take you directly to the dealership where you readily commit to five or more years of payments for whatever vehicle the salesperson says you should buy? Hopefully not. Other than a house, buying a car is just about the biggest purchase you can make. Hopefully, you take the time to ask (and answer) questions like “how much will this cost me to own?”, “will this do what I need it to do?”, “how does this compare to the other cars available”, “am I getting my money’s worth”, “can this fit in with my other bills and obligations?”, and “can I really afford this?”
But you don’t need me to tell you this. You already know that you should always take an honest and pragmatic end-to-end look at large spending decisions. It’s simple personal financial responsibility. And it should also be the common practice of those making decisions about how our tax money is raised and spent.
Let’s look at a particularly egregious example that was pitched this past session: the cloud tax. In brief, a group of lawmakers feeling the pressure to fund vital water quality programs decided that they would do so with general fund money. Now seeing a gap in the general fund that needed to be filled (the fund that ultimately funds our schools, by the way) they looked around the room, pointed to the nearest un-taxed object, and said “ah-ha!” And so, with barely any time spent looking at how the tax would be implemented or how it would impact those who would be paying for it, away they went. They didn’t even take the time to determine spending efficacy, with no plan laid out to show that the money raised from this new tax would actually affect water quality improvement throughout the state (and with no language addressing the SOURCE of the pollution, it’s hard to argue that it would have made any difference at all.)
Common sense ultimately prevailed in this instance and the proposal was scrapped. Just the fact that it was proposed as a serious idea, however, is illustration enough that it is high time Montpelier establish a universal checklist to prove, in public record, that decision makers are honoring their fiduciary duty to those providing the cash. If a proposal can pass this basic litmus test, then we the public can have trust in it and it should move forward with the discussion. If it cannot, then the bill needs to be brought back to the drawing board.
It needs to be a clear-cut system asking simple questions, which in answering creates an end-to-end view of spending measures. It must define a basic premise of financial responsibility in government: what does this measure accomplish, will it help our state, and how will it impact the people paying for it. Answers would be recorded for the public record, reinforcing transparency and accountability between our lawmakers and the citizens they serve.
If I may, some proposed questions:
• Who will be most impacted by the cost of this legislation?
• How much will this measure cost those who will be paying for it, and is it a cost they can afford?
• How does this stack with the money Vermonters are already paying, and how does it fit in with other proposed spending measures being considered?
• Does solid data and a detailed plan exist so that Vermonters can be confident that the money will achieve its goal?
• Who is responsible for ensuring efficacy if this legislation is approved and how will they be held accountable?
• What will be the demonstrable return on this spending and what metrics will be used to show it?
Completion of such a checklist should be a requirement of any Senate or House Committee seeking to pass any legislation that will have an impact on Vermonters’ wallet. Doing so serves to strengthen the argument for potential laws, provides transparency and accountability that will build trust between Vermonters and our elected officials, presents a picture of how a spending bill fits in with everything else we must pay for, and shows that our lawmakers are truly taking the time to care about Vermonters.
Only one question persists: will our lawmakers have the fortitude?