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September 17, 2010

Is Doug Hoffer Becoming the 'Wedge Issue' in the Governor's Race?

Hoffer-2832 In each of the past two debates, Republican Brian Dubie has called on Democratic rival Peter Shumlin to say if he agrees with a comment made by fellow Democrat Doug Hoffer, the party's candidate for state auditor.

Dubie also asked Shumlin if he was publicly supporting Hoffer's candidacy.


Sounds like Hoffer's running critique of Dubie's understanding of Vermont's tax structure is getting under the GOP candidate's skin.

Or, rather than Shumlin's use of abortion as a wedge issue, perhaps Dubie thinks Hoffer is a wedge issue of choice this campaign season. In a tight race, you just never know.

During Monday's debate on WVMT-AM's "Charlie, Ernie & Lisa" show and again Wednesday night on Vermont Public Radio, Dubie asked Shumlin if he was supporting Hoffer's candidacy.

He also asked Shumlin if he agreed with a statement Hoffer made recently about Vermonters and their tax burden.

On WVMT, Dubie said: "Doug Hoffer says that, quote, 'Anyone who says Vermonters are overtaxed is lying to you.' That's a pretty strong statement and pretty inflammatory and I think that it's factually untrue. My question is: Do you agree with his statement and are you supporting your candidate for auditor?"

Shumlin said he didn't agree with Hoffer's use of the word "lying" and hopes that everyone running for office can avoid using the word as a political epithet. Gee, wonder why?

"I don't approve of the language and I hope during this campaign we can have a civil discourse," said Shumlin. "Having said that, I think what Doug is after is frustration that your explanation of tax cuts and tax policy don't reflect what has actually happened."

Shumlin said Dubie has been distorting his tax record and avoiding giving more details about just who would benefit under his tax cut plan.

Though Shumlin ducked the question about whether he supports Hoffer as a candidate, on VPR Shumlin said he backs "the entire Democratic ticket."

Yesterday, when asked, Shumlin said he doesn't understand Dubie's obsession with Hoffer.

"I am puzzled by the questions about Doug Hoffer," Shumlin told Seven Days. "I think he's running a great campaign for auditor and I support him."

Shumlin, along with all five Democrats running for governor, backed Hoffer during his primary campaign against Sen. Ed Flanagan.

When asked, Dubie's Campaign Manager Corry Bliss said Dubie is asking the question for two reasons: To see if Shumlin agrees with Hoffer's claim that Vermonters aren't overtaxed, and if he is truly backing Hoffer.

"Peter's told some people he supports Hoffer and others that he doesn't," said Bliss. As to whether he'll ask Shumlin the question again today on the Mark Johnson Show, Bliss didn't know, but he said he's not sure Shumlin's answers have been completely truthful or complete.

Asked if Dubie, in turn, supports Republican Tom Salmon — who has had his own share of questionable activity, and interactions with the media, while in office — Bliss said, "Yes."

A final point here. The quote Dubie attributes to Hoffer isn't accurate. In fact Dubie's question omits a few key words and some context.

Here's what Hoffer told Peter Hirschfeld at the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus recently in an excellent story about Vermont's tax structure.

According to the 2007 tax study by the Joint Fiscal Office, which compared the income tax obligations of Vermonters with those in neighboring states, even relatively well-off Vermonters pay less in taxes than their neighbors in Massachusetts.

The study cited several examples: A married homeowner with two children making about $80,000 pays about $3,000 in Massachusetts and only $1,400 in Vermont. Someone in the same situation making $109,000 would pay $5,200 in Massachusetts and $3,500 in Vermont. Despite Massachusetts’ lower top marginal rate, even a “rich” married homeowner with three children making $357,000 pays only slightly less in income taxes in that state, $18,000, compared with a similarly situated resident of Vermont, $20,800.

The differences become greater as the income ratchets up: A married homeowner with two kids making about $1 million pays $56,000 in Massachusetts and $73,000 in Vermont.

“It’s very clear: Vermont does not have a crushing tax burden — period — and anyone who says it does is lying,” said Doug Hoffer, a Burlington policy analyst and the Democratic nominee in the race for state auditor.

Hoffer challenges the assumption that tax cuts for people at the top marginal rates will spur economic development. “There are only about 1,400 people that make more than $500,000, and these are the people that are going to see the real money from a reduction in the top marginal rate,” he said. “The question is how many of those are legitimate job creators.”

Hoffer said he can’t provide any data proving he’s right. But neither, he said, can Dubie.

“He’s made a statement with a very important assumption underneath it, and the question is has Dubie provided information that will support that assumption,” Hoffer said. “If he has not, then one leg of his stupid stool is gone.”

Hoffer told Seven Days he was responding to Hirschfeld's questions as they related to the Joint Fiscal Office study, which Hoffer says proves that a majority of Vermont taxpayers pay less in income taxes than they do in other states. Too often, he said, the focus is on the top marginal rate rather than the actual rates people pay — or those taxes paid by people in lower income brackets given Vermont's progressive tax structure.

"I think the most important part of all of this is that Brian didn't get the quote right, and I think that's important because it distorts the issue that was being discussed in the article and to which I was responding," said Hoffer.

For Hoffer, though, the mention is not only gratifying, but in an election season when it's hard to get attention when you're one of the "down ticket" candidates, the Dubie mentions are also giving him some free advertising.

Given Hoffer's love of golf, he's perhaps accustomed to the use of a wedge. But, as in golf, a "wedge" is normally used when your ball's stuck in the sandtrap and there's no other hope of getting your game back on the green.

For Hoffer, though, the mention is not only gratifying, but in an election season when it's hard to get attention when you're one of the "down ticket" candidates, the Dubie mentions are also giving him some free advertising.

I wonder how I can get myself to be a wedge issue...

"Vermont has a crushing tax burden" vs. "Vermonters are overtaxed," what's the difference? It's called paraphrasing. If I say that Vermonters are overtaxed, does he think I'm telling the truth? The point is that "crushing" and "overtaxed" are both matters of opinion. Calling someone a liar for stating their opinion is incredibly immature.

Digging further into that quote would not have made Hoffer look any better. He's quoting a study that used five year old data, a study that he worked on but they had to hire a CPA to crunch the numbers, he admits that he can't support his point, and he called one of Dubie's ideas "stupid." He's like a child that just screeches "prove it" and calls names when he disagrees with someone's opinion.

Does Hoffer's assessment take into account property taxes? My parents live in Massachusetts in a home assessed at a value similar to mine, and they pay about half the amount of property tax that I do. And is the state known as "Taxachusetts" really where we want to set the bar when it comes to such comparisons?

Tracy, what kinds of property tax abatements do your parents utilize? Massachusetts has a number of programs for seniors, surviving spouses, veterans, and those whose property taxes are more than 10% of income.

It is difficult to compare taxes in one location to those in another with 100% accuracy.

@Tracy No, the JFO study did not include property taxes.

@Steve Generally speaking, MA property taxes are about half those in VT. I have a friend in his 30's whose loft is worth about what my house is, and his property taxes are less than half mine. He finds my property tax bill to be either sad or hilarious, depending on his mood.

Huh. Well that helps explain why Massachusetts is facing a $2 BILLION deficit and why they have a $22 BILLION hole in their state pension system.

@ONE_VERMONTER, not at all. MA property taxes aren't relevant to those problems.

""Peter's told some people he supports Hoffer and others that he doesn't," said Bliss."

What??!! Peter Shumlin speaking out of both sides of his mouth?? I'm shocked! Shocked, I say!

Vermont IS different from other places. We hold our politicians to a slightly different standard of ethics. When Shumlin becomes Governor, Vermont's ethics have hit the floor like a dress on prom night.

" ""Peter's told some people he supports Hoffer and others that he doesn't," said Bliss."

What??!! Peter Shumlin speaking out of both sides of his mouth?? I'm shocked! Shocked, I say! "

I wouldn't call the opposing campaign manager a really solid source there Sean.

Jimmy, a loft isn't comparable to a house. A loft's taxes don't include the tax on the real property (land).

What do MA property taxes pay for compared to VT property taxes? Unless the services are very, very similar, the tax comparison falls apart.

@Steve the tax rate is applied to the entire property, regardless of whether that property includes land or not. If my friend had an equivalently valued house/land combination, his taxes would be exactly the same.

I'm not sure if or why you're trying to dispute that MA's property taxes are significantly lower than VT's. It's a pretty well known fact. Google "state by state property tax rates" and you will find a NYT comparison of average rates from 2007 - VT 2.06, MA 1.07.

You may wonder why the JFO study didn't include property taxes. When Hoffer was asked that question on the prog blog, he claimed that they didn't have enough money to include property taxes. Yet he continues to quote the study in attempts to argue tax burden.

The Massachusetts state budget is a mess. Their tax policy is a blueprint for deeper deficits and fiscal ruin.

Additionally, their unemployment rate is currently 8.8%. Vermont's is 5.9%. So their tax policy hasn't given them an advantage with job creation. (source - U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Modeling our fiscal policies after those of Massachusetts is would be a huge mistake.

Saying that Vermont shouldn't lower taxes because MA has lower taxes and their unemployment rate is higher is asinine. It's like saying water makes you fat because every fat person you know drinks water. Tax rates are only one of many, many factors that affect unemployment, and extremely tangentially at that.

That's not what I said, but ok.

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