The state of Vermont faces a $112 million General Fund shortfall next year - and even more if the promised Challenge for Change savings fizzle out. The state also faces a total unfunded retirement benefits liability of $1.932 billion. The state's taxpayers endure the 5th highest state and local tax burden of the 50 states. Families in every community are out of work and insecure.
One concerned office holder, Attorney General William Sorrell, has decided that it's time for a bold new initiative: to raise $30 million in new taxes to enable state government to wage war against. the Menace of Obesity.
A year ago the AG fell in with a group of 70 "stakeholders", alarmed at what he recently was to describe as "the skyrocketing rates of obesity and overweight." There were grave discussions about the fat explosion. People are acting not only against their own well being, but also against society's interests! The Jeffords Center at UVM produced a report by a notably left wing professor, concluding that obesity is costing Vermont an astounding $615 million a year. In November the AG presided over a news conference proposing swift action to combat this menace.
Apparently the media did not spend much time dissecting the Jeffords Center report. If they had, they would have found that, of the $615 million, $295 million is due to obese people not producing anything because they died, and $188 million is due to obese people not showing up for their jobs (sick days) and engaging in something called "presenteeism". This latter concept relates to fat people not being as productive on the job as normal sized people. In addition, the Jeffords Center report calculates a cost of $1.7 million for "gasoline", presumably meaning that fat people require more fuel to get to the workplace. Removing these "costs" reduces the cost of obesity by 79%.
As for Sorrell's "skyrocketing rates of obesity and overweight", the report says that from 1999 to 2007 the adult obesity rate doubled - but it doesn't say from what to what. A referenced Health Department data sheet says adult obesity rose from 20% in 2003 to 22% in 2007. If that's skyrocketing, so is Vermont's economy.
The centerpiece of the "Attorney General's Healthy Weight Initiative" is a program to subsidize the purchase of healthy foods for food stamp recipients ($7.3 million). Another $600,000 will be handed out to retailers to buy better refrigeration. Another $450,000 will subsidize healthier school lunches. Communities would get $2 million to create "local facilities and programs targeting nutrition, disease prevention and physical activity".
Sorrell would spend $140,000 to intensify the Healthy Retailer Program and "work on wellness in communities and workplaces". He would give the Education Department another $231,000 to hire three new employees to "provide greater support for improvements in school wellness and nutrition" by auditing local school practices. Act 250 applicants would have to show that their proposed developments would not adversely affect "community health and wellness."
Sorrell well understands that there is no spare change around to pay this bill. So he proposes slapping a one cent per fluid ounce tax on "sugar sweetened beverages" to bring in $30 million a year. Whole milk, which has half again as many calories per ounce as sugar-sweetened soda, was somehow overlooked.
Hearing Sorrell's bold new tax proposal, Governor-elect Peter Shumlin had his spokesperson make it clear that the new Governor had no intention whatever of beginning his new administration by proposing a new tax.
Let's be fair: overweight and obesity are problems for half of Vermont's population. But let's also be honest: extracting millions in new taxes, handing out more grants, hiring more bureaucrats, and jacking the Nanny State up to a new level is not likely to be a popular idea.
Sorrell informed the media that his duties include "looking out for the well-being of the general public." Somebody needs to inform Sorrell, forcefully, that the law says that his job is to represent the state in all civil and criminal matters, issue advisory opinions, and supervise state's attorneys.
If and when the legislature and Governor agree to create the position of Nanny in Chief, Sorrell, citing his many years as head of his own $8 million a year taxpayer-financed public interest law firm, will be welcome to apply. Until then, he should scrap his tax-raising Nanny State program and stick to his boring but essential statutory duties.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).