Our Opinion: Striving for a sustainable budget

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So much about living in Vermont is all about sustainability. We want to take care of our environment, so we have laws in place to protect natural resources and limit the impact of human activities on water sources. We want our air to be clean and we want to do our part in the fight against climate change, so we're aspiring to using 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.

But what about the state budget?

Right now, it's anything but sustainable.

The education fund is facing a potential $80 million hole for the coming fiscal year. That equates to an increase in the property tax rate of between 7 and 9 cents per $100 of valuation.

But it doesn't stop there. Now we've learned that personal income tax collections missed projections by $5.69 million in October, and the Scott administration says they're off by $6.41 million to date for the fiscal year. That shortfall could be a steeper first step off the cliff than we had expected.

Throw in the likely disappearance of funding in the coming federal budget, thanks to the so-called Republican "leadership" in Congress, and we're looking at a mess for Vermont's spending plan -- and everyone who relies upon it.

When facing a financial emergency such as a job loss, an illness, a sudden unforeseen expense, a household or business can do two things: Cut expenditures and/or find new sources of revenue.

For Vermont, there's only so much enthusiasm for raising taxes and fees. The burden is already significant.

But there's not much desire to cut spending for education, social services or public safety, either. Such cuts need to be measured, because training future employees, ensuring the health and well-being of children and families and enforcing the state's laws are important investments in our quality of life. And sending those people to the unemployment line is a decision that needs to be made with the understanding that these are human beings with families, not numbers on a spreadsheet.

There's probably no avoiding one or the other, and unless Vermont wins its own lottery (sorry, not possible), there's no financial windfall on the horizon. The state could legalize the sale of marijuana and tax the heck out of it, but there seems to be little enthusiasm for rushing into a Colorado-style marijuana legalization without carefully considering the unintended consequences. (Perhaps economic reality will change that view.)

Vermont is almost certainly raising property taxes for education. That's more or less a given.

Can it cut its way out of raising taxes even more? And where to cut, and how much?

These are the questions our representatives in the Statehouse will face when they return to Montpelier in January.

Whatever the solution is, it has to begin with a fresh start, and a recognition that this is a difficult problem with no easy, popular solutions. No one is going to have their cake and eat it too this time.

And even though 2018 is an election year, it must avoid the typical posturing of ideology poorly disguised as leadership that we often see out of Washington. We've seen where that leads: nowhere.

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