Editorial: Tough spending choices today save for tomorrow

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The Burlington Free Press editorial criticizing the conditions of Vermont's roads (April 12, "Crumbling of Vermont") illustrates the same shallow thinking that is in vogue in Washington. We have a problem so we will not confront it. We'll simply push the cost into the future and let our children pay for it.

According to the editorial, no hard choices need to be made about how to pay for the paving problems; we can simply borrow against future allocations.

The obvious question is, "What happens when the bonds come due in 10 or 20 years and the needs have not gone away?" Then Vermont taxpayers are left with a lower bond rating, higher taxes and additional interest costs, and the infrastructure needs additional repairs which are even more out of reach.

Painful as it may be, the best way to deal with tough choices is to make them now, not put them off as the federal government, which is now running half-trillion dollar deficits regularly, spurring a jobless recovery and a deteriorating dollar, is routinely doing.

There are basically two reasonable solutions to the infrastructure problems in Vermont. The first, as the Free Press pointed out, is to transfer money from the general fund to the transportation fund. Historically, this has been done from time to time, and there have been transfers the other way as well. These transfers always result in a rancorous fight between road advocates and human services advocates who would have to cut services such as mental health, aid to education or health care in order to pay for roads.

A few years ago both sides reached a truce, and are using an agreed upon allocation formula which seems fair.

The other solution is to cut back on the number of projects, since our appetite for the new construction of enormous projects such as the Circ Highway, the Bennington Bypass and the Mississquoi Bay bridge clearly outstrips our ability to pay for them and maintain a reasonable maintenance schedule.

There are two other solutions. The first is to strip out all the small stuff like bike paths, sidewalks, etc. I would argue against this since attacking the quality of life in communities all over the state would yield a tiny amount of money relative to the total transportation budget.

Another solution is to raise the gas tax, something the Legislature is unlikely to do at a time when we have the highest gas prices on record.

Furthermore, the problem is not Vermont's share of the highway budget; we have not failed to match that for many years. The problem is not enough federal money to do all the things we want to do. That is, in part, the legacy of the Bush tax cuts. The federal government chose huge tax cuts which most of us did not get, and in order to hold down the resultant enormous deficits, is cutting back on a variety of services from roads, to mass transit, to college aid, to environmental protection.

It is the Legislature's job to balance competing interests such as roads, education, health care, and levels of taxation. Lawmakers are not perfect, but they have at least not succumbed to the fiscal insanity of borrow and spend, borrow and spend that is going on in Washington. Please do not encourage them to do so!

Howard Dean is a former governor of Vermont.

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