Too far a reach
Some of the central components of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s agenda for this year have stumbled badly in the Legislature because they seemed to come out of nowhere.
Ordinarily, major reforms receive close attention from affected groups and from legislators keen to study a problem and examine solutions. But sometimes a governor will launch an initiative from within the inner sanctum of his administration, without warning or the kind of preliminary work that is designed to build support from the public and the Legislature. That is what has happened with Shumlin.
It also happened to his predecessor. One of the big ideas promoted by Gov. James Douglas back in 2006 was what he called his Promise Scholarships. This was a major initiative to direct $175 million over 10 years for scholarships that would be awarded to Vermont college students who promised to stay in Vermont for three years after graduation. The proposal was designed to halt the outflow of young Vermonters in order to boost the state’s economic prospects.
The program had much to recommend it, but it came as a surprise to legislators when Douglas announced it in his State of the State address. They were not in the loop; their support had not been cultivated. And when it came down to it, they didn’t like Douglas’ funding source, which was the state’s tobacco fund.
Legislators who think they are being steamrollered into supporting a bill by a campaign of rhetoric and political pressure are often inclined to resist. The result in Douglas’ case was skepticism among legislators and a much watered-down program.
This year Shumlin’s surprise proposal was to reform welfare.
Who knew the state had a problem with welfare laggards, living indefinitely on the largesse of the state? It was not a crisis that most people in Montpelier were aware of. But Shumlin presented the Legislature with a plan to save about $6 million each year by forcing people out of the state’s Reach Up program if they exceeded a five-year time limit.
There was moving testimony in the House from people in the program about the difficulties they encounter in finding stable employment, housing, transportation and child care, and not for want of trying. Cutting off benefits could throw a small core of troubled families into chaos, introducing new instability among people struggling to get by.
Nevertheless, the House approved a modified version of Shumlin’s plan, presumably on the assumption that the state needed to take a moral stand against dependency. It is a way for liberals to show, as they did in the Clinton years, that they are hard-nosed about budgeting decisions.
But so far we have seen no evidence of a crisis of welfare dependency. No doubt there are cases of people trying to game the system — Ronald Reagan’s so-called welfare queens. But no record has been established showing a crisis worthy of the action Shumlin is proposing.
His welfare plan has encountered extreme skepticism in the Senate, and so he came back with a modified proposal that appears to slow the skid toward a denial of benefits. But critics say it is no improvement. Indeed, for Shumlin to appear to be bargaining with senators suggests he believes his proposal is in jeopardy.
If there is a crisis of laziness among Vermont’s low-income population, let Shumlin’s human service officials come forward and show the evidence in a convincing way. Establish a record. Give examples. Rather, it appears the welfare reforms Shumlin has proposed emanate from the budget-cutting apparatus of his administration.
It’s always good to save $4 million (the savings achieved by his modified plan), especially as upward pressure on taxes builds, but that total is small compared to the hardship and costs his Reach Up proposals could create. The state’s Reach Up program, by all accounts, works well in placing low-income Vermonters in jobs and helping them find the supports they need to stay employed. Few recipients reach the five-year limit.
Shumlin is now encountering the resistance governors encounter when they fail to nurture legislative support. He may have thought he could foster a public perception that welfare required reform, and that public pressure would compel the Legislature to fall in line.
But the Legislature is learning the virtues of independence this year. Members are capable of deciding that if Shumlin’s claims about welfare have a basis in fact they may want to study the question.
But to be stampeded into action on flimsy assumptions and no evidence does not seem to be a reasonable course for a proudly independent branch of government.