Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 18, 2003
POLITICS: The Dean Record, Part 2: Spending
Continuing from yesterday:
This is the part of Dean's record that is the subject of the most contested talking points on each side. Dean's backers, eager to show that he is really more fiscally conservative than President Bush (I'll leave the issue of when the Democrats became the green eyeshade party for another day), love to point out that he repeatedly balanced Vermont's budget and even ran surpluses, despite the fact that Vermont (unlike most states) does not have a constitutional requirement of a balanced budget.
At first glance, it's a good record. McClaughry grouses that some of this was smoke and mirrors:
On several occasions during those years he was forced to make some spending cuts. In his earlier years, he favored directing his department heads to reduce their spending. In later years, he became adept at fund raiding and cost shifting. On the former point, Jack Hoffman, the longtime liberal commentator for the Vermont Press Bureau, observed in 2002 that "Dean's proposal to squeeze the education fund looks less like an exercise of fiscal restraint and more like an old fashioned raid on the one account that's still healthy."
This, to me, sounds like par for the course for state governors; Al Gore made essentially the same charge about Bush's budget-balancing record in Texas. Let's accept, for now, the idea that Dean kept a close eye on discretionary spending. There are still two caveats here.
First, of course, there are a variety of reasons why balancing the Vermont budget in the 1990s is a lot easier than balancing the federal budget today. Vermont has just over 600,000 inhabitants, a fact I still find shocking; New York City has a third of that in a single police precinct, and Texas has 21 million people. Like the Scandanavian countries it chooses as a model, Vermont is heavily rural (Dean has never had to contend with the problems of a major city), almost absurdly ethnically homogenous (96.8% white and just a third of the national average speaks a language other than English at home), which reduces a number of the social frictions that create government headaches, and of course, Vermont has no defense budget. You could institute Platonically ideal policies for Vermont that still wouldn't work at the national level. The stock market boom of the 1990s made everyone's job easier. Also, as Kevin Drum noted the other day, it's easier to balance your budget when your state is a net recipient of federal tax payments, as is Vermont (again, unlike, say, Texas).
Second, and far more significantly, while it's true that the GOP has not been diligent about policing spending, the real gripe conservatives have with the Democrats is that their policy proscriptions invariably involve creating big entitlement programs that, once set in motion, can never be cut or eliminated. As Steven Moore notes, that's exactly what Dean seems to have done in Vermont, creating:
a state-funded universal health care system (which as president he would take nationwide), government-subsidized child care (even for the rich), . . . a mega-generous prescription drug benefit for seniors with incomes up to four times the poverty level, . . . and taxpayer-funded campaigns.
The NR piece I noted yesterday contended that Vermont's new Republican governor had found it necessary already to trim the sails of Dean's healthcare plan to keep the budget in balance. And, as with taxes, that is the question voters have to ask themselves about Dean: what does he propose to do? The answer, of course -- as I'm sure we'll discuss in more detail as the campaign goes on -- is still more big entitlement programs.
Dean kept the budget of a tiny state in balance during boom years. That's not nothing, but it bears about as much resemblance to balancing the federal budget as does balancing your checkbook.