The idea of a wealth tax pops in and out of Vermont’s political conversation with the same dependability that we see with the change of seasons. It springs forth and then goes moribund when the leaves fall and the idea is stripped bare.
It’s happened again this year with the gubernatorial campaign of Democratic/Progressive David Zuckerman. He has proposed taxing the wealthiest five percent of Vermonters, promising to use the $100 million raised to build out the state’s broadband needs and to fund some climate change initiatives.
It’s a page ripped from the Bernie Sanders bible, which is to tap the nation’s wealthiest — the millionaires and the billionaires — to fix the nation’s ills. Everything on the backs of the one-percenters.
Mr. Zuckerman’s problem is Mr. Sanders’ problem: To fully fund the programs requires taxing people who are much lower on the income scale than the one percenters. The ideas are too big and the people slated to pay, too few.
Mr. Zuckerman is selling his program as something that only affects those with household incomes of $294,000 or above. His opponent, Gov. Phil Scott took him to task saying the top five percent starts at $159,000. A fact check by Vermont Digger showed the governor to be closer to the truth. That means there are a lot more households in Vermont affected than Mr. Zuckerman contends.
The issue isn’t whether those at the highest reaches of our income ladder should be taxed more, nor is there much of a debate as to whether income inequality is an issue. They should, and it is.
But for the debate to be productive, it has to be based on defensible numbers. If it were accurate that Vermont could generate $100 million each year by taxing Vermont households making almost $300,000 a year, that would prompt some serious reflection. But if generating $100 million yearly requires dipping down to $159,000, that’s entirely different math. There are a fair number of households in Vermont that report household incomes above $150,000 who don’t feel rich, or particularly privileged. There are a lot of two-income households in which both wage earners have state jobs, or work as teachers.
The disingenuous part of Mr. Zuckerman’s campaign proposal is that he is promising a lot to be done on the backs of very few. It’s appealing because we all want the benefits if the other person is paying the bill. And, courtesy of Mr. Sanders, it’s generally accepted amongst his devoted that this is doable.
In Vermont, it is not. There aren’t enough businesses large enough to generate that amount of wealth. We don’t have policies — let alone the weather or amenities — to make Vermont an appealing home for the retired wealthy. [It might be that climate change makes us more so.]
Extending broadband to Vermont’s most rural communities is a valuable proposition, and so is the funding of climate change initiatives. But they are not things we can accomplish by taxing a very small percentage of our households. That’s something that will require all of us to pay a little more and the worst way to proceed is to pretend that is not the case when we all know that it is.
by Emerson Lynn