I grew up tying broken rubber bands together to extend their life. I didn’t get the latest toy. And I got comfortable in hand-me-down clothes. Although we didn’t have much money growing up, I attribute this to my family’s frugality.
Vermonters used to be proud of our frugal ways. We wore it like a rusty old, repurposed badge of honor. I’m reminded of the old joke: “How many Vermonters does it take to change a light bulb?” To which the answer is: “change it? That was my grandfather’s light bulb!”
But it seems to me we’ve lost this trait. Sure, there still exist farmers who haven’t bought a new implement in their lives, and wouldn’t be caught dead with a shiny new tractor. But if our state budget is any indication, Vermont has lost its frugality.
Spending beyond our means was once thought unfathomable by our cultural norms. And now, we’ve spent ourselves into a $113 million hole.
It’s one thing to have inaccurately predicted economic growth. But frugality means planning for what could be, not just what is foreseen. No matter how you felt about their politics, Governors Snelling and Dean lead us away from a budget landscape similar to where we find ourselves today, toward an era of fiscal restraint and responsibility.
Where austerity is stern and indiscriminate caps on spending, frugality is a culture of thriftiness, in which we don’t spend unless we have to, in which we make do with what we’ve got whenever it is reasonable to do so, in which we tie a broken rubber band together once before we throw it out for good.
In 1992 Colorado passed a constitutional amendment called the Taxpayers Bill of Rights or TABOR. A far from perfect solution to over-spending, TABOR was a reaction to a taxpayer revolt. It limited growth in state revenue to growth in the economy. I am not advocating for such a restriction for Vermont’s legislature, TABOR was a blunt and sloppy instrument to reign in spending.
But when there is a measurable dissonance between the cultural values of the electorate and the elected, reactionary policies can emerge. Policies that dispense with subtlety in favor instant impact. This type of policy is almost always unkind and ineffective.
More important than a change in how lawmakers manage the state budget is the articulation of the frustration and anger that Vermont has lost its frugal nature. It’s time for Vermont to tie their rubber bands together.