Vermont’s leading Republican, Jack Lindley, has taken a hardline view on the federal government’s $85 billion in sequester cuts over the next seven months, which went into effect on Friday.
Lindley, the state GOP chair, says the across-the-board cuts, split 50-50 between defense and non-defense federal agencies, are merely a “bend in a curve of increasing expenditures.”
“If we can’t get ourselves in a position where we can watch a slowing of government expenditures, by 2.5 percent, then we’re going to leave our grandkids in an awful mess,” Lindley told VTDigger.
“Unfortunately, they [Democrats] view the world so that when you don’t expend at increasing amounts, they believe that those are cuts. Those are not cuts: they are reductions in the levels of expenditures that are ever-increasing,” he continued.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has estimated that Vermont could lose $15 million as a result of the automatic spending cuts. In addition, more than 500 Vermont National Guard members could see a 20 percent pay cut, and 6,000 federal employees working in the state could be affected.
While Lindley says he doesn’t think the sequester is the best way to tackle what he calls “excessive” federal spending, because it doesn’t distinguish between different spending priorities within agencies, he believes it may be the only alternative.
“Sequester is not the best option, but it’s the only option for trying to get expenditures under control,” Lindley said. “That’s because there’s been gridlock in Washington.”
“My friends on the other side have overblown their statements as to how the world is going to come to an end, and I find that regrettable,” Lindley said. “They’re not being very thoughtful relative to bringing federal expenditures under control. The sun came up on March 1, and the sun set on March 1, and the world has not come to an end. It is now March 4, and I don’t believe the world has come to an end.”
Other Vermont GOP leaders are also skeptical about the extent of the damage to the state. Rep. Don Turner, who leads the minority GOP caucus in the House, said when lawmakers introduced a draft resolution last Friday opposing the spending cuts, he objected to the use of words like “drastic” and “severe” to describe the sequester’s impact, because the extent of the impact is still not “truly known.” Democratic majority leader Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, and Progressive leader Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, sponsored the resolution along with Turner.
“A lot of people are trying to make this seem like a huge, huge cut,” Turner told VTDigger. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think there are cuts in many areas, and they’re not going to get as much money as they’d hoped to have gotten. But I don’t think they’ll see substantial cuts either.”
“I don’t want people to be scared into making decisions based on fear,” he added.
Turner’s other take is that the sequester provokes a long overdue and much-needed conversation about the state’s reliance on federal funding. The state received 36 percent of its $6.7 billion budget from the feds in fiscal year 2013, its largest single source of revenue, according to the Joint Fiscal Office’s Fiscal Facts 2013.
“This reality is working upon people, that we can’t just continue to depend more and more on federal dollars,” said Turner. “We have become very, very dependent in Vermont on federal money, and we need to start to wean ourselves off of that. … This [sequestration] may be the way that a majority of people see that we can’t depend on federal dollars.”
Turner described the ongoing fiscal controversy in Washington, D.C., as a chance to evaluate state programs, examine ways to offset federal funding and gauge whether these programs can be delivered with a reduced share of federal money.
But Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, arguably the state’s most prominent Republican politician, doesn’t see Turner’s goal as realistic, and sees nothing positive emerging from sequestration.
Though acknowledging that Vermont is heavily dependent on federal funds, Scott said: “I already feel as though we tax Vermonters enough. … I don’t think there’s any more room for us to come up with any more revenue to offset federal dollars. … As for cutting our way out of it, I don’t believe we have the appetite to do that.”
Scott, like Lindley and Turner, believes that the sequester’s impact won’t be quite as damaging as some have predicted. After the onslaught of “political theater” and “rhetoric” from both Democrats and Republicans, said Scott, his office interviewed as many people as they could find to gauge the impact of the cuts in Vermont.
“What we found is that it won’t have much of an effect on us in the short term. But of course, in the longer term, it could hurt us tremendously, especially if they [federal politicians] continue to kick the can down the road,” said Scott.
Turner’s language is more direct. Among his caucus, he said, “I don’t think anyone’s concerned that the state’s going to stop business, or that some of our most vulnerable are going to be hurt because of this initial sequestration. I don’t think anyone’s concerned that anyone’s going to be severely impacted.”
However, the resolution introduced by liberals and backed by Turner noted substance abuse programs would treat 500 fewer people, 100 children would lose funding under the Head Start program, and “about 100 disadvantaged and vulnerable children could lose access to child care.”
All three GOP politicians blame the cuts on a failure of leadership in Washington, D.C., advising that those in the capital learn from Montpelier in terms of successful bipartisan politics.
Quick to attack, the Vermont Democratic Party last week launched an email missive after Lindley discussed his views on the sequester with Montpelier Times-Argus reporter Pete Hirschfeld.
Jake Perkinson, the state chair of the Democratic Party, condemned Lindley’s statements last week as “ill-informed” and “out of touch with the realities of the financial implication of the cuts.” Perkinson added that sequestration would affect higher education, civil defense, education for children with disabilities, law enforcement and public health.
Perkinson also labeled new Republican vice chair Deborah Bucknam, Lindley’s new second-in-command, a “tea party activist.” Bucknam didn’t respond to VTDigger’s requests for comment.
Although Shumlin has pinned responsibility for inaction on federal House Republicans, Scott disagreed with that view.
“I blame all involved, Republicans and Democrats alike,” Scott said. “They both made the deal together, decided when the date was going to be, what the terms were. Both parties should be blamed equally for the lack of action.”
Scott added: “I think Vermonters – Vermont Republicans, Vermont Democrats – I think everyone’s uneasy about what’s going on, because they don’t know what it [the cuts] mean to them, and what they should do. Should they hoard their money? As a business do you expand or sell?”
“There’s so much of his uncertainty from the national level, and with the health care system going through a transition at the same time, that’s just making the situation even worse.”
CORRECTION: The article originally read: Rep. Don Turner, who leads the minority GOP caucus in the House, said when left-leaning lawmakers introduced a draft resolution last Friday opposing the spending cuts, he objected to the use of words like “drastic” and “severe” to describe the sequester’s impact, because the extent of the impact is still not “truly known.” Democratic majority leader Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, and Progressive leader Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, are the main sponsors of the resolution.
Turner actually co-sponsored the resolution along with Jewett and Pearson. The story now reads: Other Vermont GOP leaders are also skeptical about the extent of the damage to the state. Rep. Don Turner, who leads the minority GOP caucus in the House, said when lawmakers introduced a draft resolution last Friday opposing the spending cuts, he objected to the use of words like “drastic” and “severe” to describe the sequester’s impact, because the extent of the impact is still not “truly known.” Democratic majority leader Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, and Progressive leader Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, sponsored the resolution along with Turner.