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(NECN: Jack Thurston, Montpelier, Vt.) - Inside Vermont's Statehouse, lawmakers are facing the tough job of closing a big gap between projected government spending and revenues: roughly $70-million. That challenge is intensifying at a time when eyeballs around the nation are glued to basketballs on TV sets, for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
The tourney inspired Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, to cook up her own tournament-style bracket. "It's March Madness right here," Sheuermann chuckled, pointing at her bracket.
"March Madness" is her way of describing a host of tax proposals. Her grid resembles the NCAA format, but instead of college teams, the Republican lists ideas to levy new charges, including fees on rooms and meals, gasoline and clothing. The costs, Sheuermann said, would make life tough for many Vermonters.
"We're not playing; I'm not having people fill it out," the lawmaker explained. "It's not a game that we're playing. It's really just a way to sort of illustrate some really, in my view, bad public policy-making we're in the midst of."
The House committee that writes potential new taxes said its work is not "March Madness." The Ways and Means Committee chair, Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, told New England Cable News she and her fellow committee members do their jobs very seriously and thoughtfully.
"Nobody wants to pay additional taxes," Ancel said. "We're choosing the things that we think will have the least impact in terms of economic development and not being regressive."
Ancel said you'd have to be in the room with committee members to get a full sense of how hard their work is. She noted the group has been busy this week designing proposals after being tasked with finding at least $20-million in new revenues. Friday, the group voted down a proposal to add a $.01-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks including soda.
"It's very, very hard," Ancel said, describing the level of detail in the negotiations that happen in her committee room.
Late Friday afternoon, Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., issued a statement on a tax package the Ways and Means Committee voted on, which is sure to see significant changes and refinement as it moves through the legislative process.
"I know that the House is working hard on the FY14 budget, and while I appreciate that they support funding many of my priorities, I disagree strongly with the manner in which the Ways and Means Committee has chosen to raise revenue," Gov. Shumlin's statement read. "I have repeatedly opposed increases to income, meals, and sales taxes, and yet this proposal hits all three. Rather than reallocating existing funds more efficiently to achieve better outcomes as my budget recommends, the committee proposal increases Vermont's already high tax burden. Luckily, we are only part-way through this legislative session and I look forward to working with the legislature to ensure that we end up with a responsible budget acceptable to all of us."
Bracketologist Sheuermann told NECN she wants to see any new taxes come with some spending cuts, and a serious focus on government efficiency.
"Vermonters just can't afford any more," Scheuermann said. "It's time to say, 'No.'"
Scheuermann said she recognizes her party is really in the minority in Democrat-controlled Vermont, but the basketball fan hopes her creative attention-getter helps start some conversations about tax impacts, as the legislature works toward a budget deal the parties find acceptable.