My mother’s family comes from the hills of western Pennsylvania. As a young boy, our family summer vacation inevitably meant my being stuffed into the back of our station wagon for a trip to Johnstown. Other than seeing my cousins, there were two things I loved about that town. We would ride the Incline Plane, a rail car hoisted up Yoder Hill along a roughly 900-foot rail track at a thrilling angle of 35 degrees, to experience sweeping views of the city. We’d also visit Galliker’s store where, for a mere 15 cents, we could buy balsa wood toy airplanes. With rubber band-powered propellers, they’d keep us kids occupied for hours until they broke or ended up on somebody’s roof where we couldn’t get them down.
One day, I reached the age where my father trusted me to hold the 15 cents until we got to Galliker’s. I felt honored passing that milestone. But we decided to ride the Incline Plane before visiting Galliker’s, a decision that led to a life lesson.
It was extremely hot as my cousins and I came off the rail car and we were thirsty. We passed a soda machine, something I’d never used before. Sodas were a nickel. I had three of them.
Plugging one of them in to successfully master the operation, I quenched my thirst. I once again felt like I had passed some important milestone.
But as my cousins paid for their toy planes at Galliker’s, I was now a nickel short. My father was not impressed. Tears welled up in my eyes as I realized he was not going to produce another nickel so I could buy a plane. His hard lesson made clear I had nobody to blame but myself for succumbing to a short-term desire and forgetting my responsibility to hold that 15 cents for its original purpose.
I was thinking about that lesson recently after hearing comments in reaction to Vermont’s bond rating being downgraded. Citing Vermont’s declining workforce, aging population and growing unfunded liabilities, two rating agencies decided Vermont’s ability to pay back money it borrows is shrinking.
This downgrade directly impacts our spending capacity. Take for example the state’s Capitol bill, which pays for things like deferred maintenance at the state colleges, the building of state offices, the construction of mental health facilities and prisons. The amount of money we had available for spending in the Capitol bill dropped from $147 million in 2017 to $124 million in 2019.
In response to the downgrade, concerning comments came from two influential leaders in the party that holds super-majority status in our legislature. They downplayed the issue by saying the rating agencies just aren’t being fair in their view of Vermont. They contended that the rating agency standards should be changed to reflect efforts Vermont is making in trying to attract more and younger working people. Their suggestion to the rating agencies that they should move the goal posts will certainly fall on deaf ears.
But what signal have they sent to legislators seeking license to create new programs, or to those who want the spending spigot wide open and unfortunately leave Vermont’s taxpayers feeling like a bottomless ATM machine? Doesn’t it suggest we can continue to spend time on efforts to make Vermont “first” with issues that bring political fame while downplaying the need of attending to un-sexy fundamentals like prisons, mental health facilities, school deferred maintenance, road conditions and water quality?
Now is not the time to ignore what the financial world is telling us about our spending habits. The message is clear: we need a different policy direction. We need to refocus all our legislative energy towards fixing foundational problems. We must have the courage to avoid the constant push for more programs and new government employees and get back to focusing on fundamentals. Our desire for instant gratification cannot override our responsibility to future generations.
Somewhere in a western Pennsylvania rain gutter are the decaying remains of a balsa wood toy airplane, bought much later by a young boy with three nickels who carefully avoided soda machines on his way to Galliker’s store. The plane’s usefulness expired within hours, but that lesson about responsible stewardship has lasted almost six decades. Vermont must learn that lesson too.
Joe Benning is state senator and minority leader of Caledonia District.