Friday, April 15, 2011

Open Letter: Vermont Legislature

Greetings Senators and Representatives,

I am writing you today in regard to a number of subjects. I apologize for the length of this letter, but I feel it is important to briefly explain why I stand where I do on the subjects below. If you aren't inclined to read the letter, please at least review the summary on the other side. Otherwise, read on.

I am disappointed in Governor Shumlin's sudden adoption of Republican language with regard to the budget now that he has been inaugurated. Concerns about "competitiveness" are usually a dishonest cover for more cuts aimed at the poor. There are states that are considered more "competitive" than Vermont that nonetheless have higher unemployment rates and/or lower median incomes than this state. And there is no evidence that business that are free to choose where operations are located do so on the basis of top marginal income tax rates. In addition, budget cuts are counterproductive when the economy is weak. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government is in the process of completing significant reductions in government spending, and as predicted, the changes have caused the previously weak economy to shrink at an annual rate of 2.4% during the 4th quarter of last year. Shumlin's proposed cuts are not as severe, but they will come on top of ones at the federal level. The effect of the two together will certainly reduce growth in this state, and thus employment. I feel that instead of cutting more, a temporary surtax should be implemented for high income residents. Revenues from other taxes has not recovered fully from the recession yet, but they should by early 2013. At that time the surtax should be removed.

I have heard several reports that the Legislature is considering some kind of tax on soda and other sugary drinks. Clearly, obesity is a major problem in this country. But an entirely new tax strikes me as overkill, because the drinks don't have the same direct deadliness as cigarettes or alcohol. I think that simply re-classifying soda and sugary drinks as not-food, and thus no longer exempt from state or local sales taxes, would be a better solution. That smaller step would do less to discourage people from buying soda, but it would be easier for retailers to implement. In addition, I think candy should also be classified as not-food. However, there may be so many borderline products that addressing that group of sugary items would result in endless battles with producers and retailers, and thus not be worthwhile.

I also heard a report that the "bottle bill" may either be expanded or removed soon. On occasion, I pick up trash from the street and from small bits of public land near my home. My admittedly anecdotal evidence is that I rarely find beer or soda cans and bottles. Instead, I find mostly small water bottles without a SKU (presumably from bulk packs), and sports drink bottles. Thus, in my neighborhood, at least, the bill certainly is working for what it covers. The program is probably inconvenient for companies that produce, distribute, or sell beverages (I have no idea where the burden falls on that side), but the deposit fee is good way to price in what is normally an externality for both the companies above, and for individuals - litter. In light of its apparent effectiveness, I think the bill should be renewed and expanded. (I also want it noted that bottle redemption has become a source of income for a number of socially marginal people, mostly middle-aged men with mental health or similar problems. Repeal of the bill should take into consideration the lost income, which may translate into higher government spending if those people seek services that they would not need with the bill in place.)

As you a probably aware, there are a number of efforts under way by newly elected Republican governors to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. For the record, I do not want the same to happen in Vermont, and I will be very disappointed if any such change is proposed. On the other hand, I will admit that I find reports of public employees abusing final salary retirement schemes to be somewhat infuriating. By abusing, I mean employees suddenly working large amounts of overtime in their last few years because the extra pay makes their retirement payments substantially higher. I am not aware of this being possible in the private sector for the few people who still have defined benefit programs to look forward to. Of course, those who only have 401K programs can do nothing of the sort, and a large portion of the population has no retirement plan available at all. If such a practice is possible in Vermont, I would like Vermont's public employees to agree to remove the clauses from future contracts. Doing so would slightly trim Vermont's long-term obligations, but mainly it would make it harder for dishonest politicians to demonize government employees, which has been done to an alarming extent in recent years.

I feel it is time to ban tasers in the State of Vermont. Contrary to common belief, crime is not getting worse all of the time, and in fact has gone down steadily since its peak in 1992 (+/- 1 year depending on the category). Crime rates have fallen by over a third in every major category. Since the decline started before tasers came into use, there is no reason to think that tasers have much of an effect on crime rates. So there is no obvious need for them. The absence of need is important because, despite what the manufacturers claim, tasers are lethal weapons. They just happen to be lethal weapons with low and unpredictable chances of success. In addition, there is also a growing body of video evidence that tasers are being used not just to control suspects who are attempting flight or bodily harm. Instead, they are being used by officers to essentially punish people for what officers feel is insufficient deference. This can be seen most clearly when officers taser suspects already on the ground and under control. Being a police officer is a tremendously stressful job, and I don't envy them one bit. But it should be acknowledged that it is stressful job, and that not every officer is an angel. I think having the ability to inflict pain without doing bodily harm (at least according to the manufacturer) becomes too much of a temptation for some officers who do not find other ways to vent their frustration. I realize that officers want to have the latest and greatest equipment. But without a need, and with the risk of abuse and potential fatalities, I see no reason for law enforcement officials to have tasers.

A summary of my concerns:
  1. Don't cut spending more; raise income taxes instead.
  2. Apply the sales tax to sugary drinks, not a new tax.
  3. Keep and expand the bottle bill.
  4. Keep collective bargaining rights in Vermont.
  5. Ban tasers because they are lethal weapons.
  6. Decriminalize minor marijuana possession (no room for details on this one!)
Thank you for your time.

No comments: