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Cautious Pragmatism

01/17/08 7:55AM By Dick Mallary
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(HOST) Commentator Dick Mallary has served extensively in state government and he's a former U-S congressman from Vermont. And as the business of this legislative session gets under way, he has some practical advice for lawmakers.

(MALLARY) Those of us who have been around for many years seem prone to see dark clouds on the horizon.  So, I guess it's time for me be the latest incarnation of Cassandra or Chicken Little.

The legislature has come back to session in Montpelier.  We have heard the State of the State address from the Governor and we are hearing all sorts of policy pronouncements from our legislative leaders.  We will be hearing hopeful declarations of what we need to do to make or keep Vermont a northern paradise.
    
It's nice to hear those hopeful voices during the first week or so of the session, but the legislature's real need is to start making hard-nosed assessments of what the state can realistically afford to do and what is impossible or at least imprudent..
    
2008 promises to be a difficult year for the state financially.  The economy here and nationally is teetering on the brink of recession and Vermont's highly progressive and very elastic tax system is especially vulnerable to any economic downturn.  We face an extraordinary risk of declining revenues.
    
And at the same time that revenues are uncertain, Vermont has taken on huge financial obligations.  We have a new health care system (Catamount) that promises increased, but unknown costs.  We have an education system, from pre-school through college whose per student costs are growing much faster than inflation. We have a deteriorating highway system in grave need of accelerated maintenance, an inadequately funded retirement system and many social programs that face growing costs if we enter an economic downturn.
    
It would be naïve to expect a completely bi-partisan or non-partisan approach to these dual challenges in an election year.  But, I believe that now is the time for the legislature to tone down the political rhetoric and curb its enthusiasm for initiating new and expensive programs, however worthy they may seem. And it is equally important that it refrain from any sort of greater tax or regulatory impositions that might jeopardize Vermont's tenuous economic base.
    
Despite these financial constraints, there is much that the legislature can effectively address in this year without serious jeopardy to Vermont's fiscal health.  There are many issues already being discussed that could usefully occupy the legislature's time without putting our economic house at risk.  Among them are issues such as government administrative streamlining, sentencing and corrections reform, energy efficiency and conservation programs, maintenance of our deteriorating infrastructure and, yes, four year terms for the Governor and other officials.  Such issues can give all of our candidates plenty of grist for their campaigns this fall without doing anything to threaten the long-term economic health of the state.
    
In my view, the challenge for the 2008 session of the General Assembly should be to do what it can to make Vermont better for its citizens today while not making life worse for them in the future.
    
I cast my vote in 2008 for cautious pragmatism.
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