Win Smith Op-Ed: Killing Us with Kindness [5.28.15]

by Win Smith, Jr., President, Sugarbush Resort and
Chair, Vermont Business Roundtable

A childhood friend of mine had a mother who had a wonderfully loving and generous heart. Meals at their home were always a feast with large portions of tasty food, which usually included a pile of creamy mashed potatoes. She would insist that we have seconds before serving us a large slice of fresh apple pie with vanilla ice cream. My friend later moved away, and I did not see him for many years until I heard he was suffering from terminal heart disease.

I visited him as he lay on his couch at home, barely able to move and in great pain. He told me that he now understood that the consequences of a lifetime of over-indulging had led to obesity, diabetes, painful gout and finally heart disease. He regretted not listening to others, nor having the discipline to correct his behavior before it became too late.

At his annual physicals, he told me that his doctor would be troubled to see he’d gained another 10 pounds, but my friend would say, “Doc, actually I had expected to be up 20 so I actually lost 10. It’s been a successful year.” For a while he told me that short-term fad solutions made him feel like he was doing the right thing, but he now understood they only delayed the inevitable. Tearfully, he looked at me and said, “I was told you ran a marathon in 2:46:48. I used to beat you running around the block, now look at me.” Shortly after my visit, my friend died. And, sadly, there is a similar story playing out right here in Vermont.

I love Vermont for many reasons, one of which is the heart that exists in our state–a strong and vibrant heart that was so evident in the days following Hurricane Irene. Today, I see how my neighbors in the Mad River Valley rally to just causes and support fellow neighbors in need. But I am worried.

Like my friend’s well-intentioned mother who thought such generosity was the kind and right thing to do, I am concerned that our elected officials in Montpelier have overfed us for years, and the consequences are now showing up in the state’s annual budgets. Like my friend, we may have enjoyed the feast, but are now finding it difficult to reduce our consumption. Our spend rate may be up only 4.8%, but weaning off these generous portions will be uncomfortable and require much discipline. But, as in the case of my friend, the consequences of failure to act are far worse.

We have a spending problem in Vermont. Do not let a well-intentioned enabler convince you otherwise; this was not a successful legislative session. We did not cut from what we spent last year; we only reduced another increase in state spending.

For the past several years, our spending rate has exceeded our revenue. Left unchecked, this fact will ultimately prove terminal. Detroit, for example, knows that now–lying on the couch like my friend. The morphine from higher fees and higher taxes on businesses and individuals may temporarily relieve the patient’s symptoms, but it does not stop the actual disease. We citizens need to help our well-meaning elected officials to understand that they are killing us with kindness.

There is no gain without pain, but if we do not get ourselves into fiscal shape, short-term pain will be the least of our problems. To get well, we need to understand that the absolute level of state spending must be reduced, the unfunded liabilities of our retirement and post-retirement health care program for teachers and state workers must be addressed, and we must reduce the increasing tax and fee burdens on business so that existing ones can grow, hire more employees, and generate additional tax revenue to the state, and so that we can bring new businesses into our state.

We are not on the couch yet, but we are one year closer.

The story of my friend is fictional. The Vermont story is real.