Jim Kenyon: A Happy Warrior; Remembering Norrie Hoyt
Norrie Hoyt was a guy I found easy to admire. He wasn’t afraid to spar with rich people, and he enjoyed throwing an occasional jab at the state of New Hampshire.
That’s my idea of a one-two punch.
When Hoyt died of congestive heart failure at his home in Norwich last Sunday at age 78, the Upper Valley lost a happy warrior who fought to level the playing field for average Vermonters. But I’m not sure how many people, other than political junkies and policy wonks, were aware of his contributions. In latter years, Hoyt was probably best known for being Kathy’s husband — which, by the way, was just fine with him. As a top aide and close adviser to Howard Dean while he served as governor from 1991 to 2003, Kathy Hoyt wielded a great deal of power in Montpelier.
Norrie, a Harvard-trained lawyer, made his mark earlier. Beginning in the early 1970s, he was elected to the Legislature five times. In 1983, at the request of then-Gov. Richard Snelling, Hoyt returned to the tax department, where he had gotten his start in state government a decade earlier as deputy commissioner. In 1985, Gov. Madeleine Kunin named him commissioner, a post he held for six years.
But it didn’t matter which branch of government that he worked in. Hoyt remained committed, as muckraking journalists are fond of saying, to “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” He was a champion for the renter rebate program, which allows low-income Vermonters who don’t own homes to get a partial refund on their income taxes. In the 1970s, he was one of the first lawmakers to advocate for the “current use” land appraisal program as a way to help farmers stay in business.
Hoyt, who also had a master’s degree in taxation from Boston University, wrote the legislation that created an “anti-speculation tax” to deter land developers, particularly those from out of state, looking to make a quick buck in Vermont. Hoyt was a pioneer in the field of progressive and environmentally based tax policies, said Jack Candon, who followed him in representing Norwich and a corner of Wilder at the Statehouse. “He was so bright and thoughtful,” said Candon, a Norwich lawyer. “He also had a wonderful sense of humor.”
I’m not sure Don Johnson would agree.
Johnson, the actor of Miami Vice fame, swooped into northern Vermont in the late 1980s to make Sweet Hearts Dance. (If you can’t remember the movie, that’s OK. Roger Ebert gave it only two stars.)
Hoyt, in his role as state tax commissioner, made sure Johnson’s visit to Vermont was a memorable one. He sent Johnson a state income tax bill of more than $50,000. In Hoyt’s way of thinking, Johnson should have to pay a tax on the money that he earned while in Vermont. After all, Hoyt reasoned, Vermonters who worked as “extras” in the movie were taxed on their earnings.
At the time, Kunin and other power brokers were trying to attract Hollywood movie-makers to Vermont to boost the state economy. Hoyt’s tax bill to Johnson, which became national news, didn’t help their cause.
At first, the Vermont Senate’s Finance Committee thought it could circumvent Hoyt by changing the law to exempt entertainers, including Johnson, retroactively, from state income tax. But when angry Vermonters lit up Statehouse phones, lawmakers quickly retreated.
Johnson paid his hefty tax bill, but not without getting in his two cents worth. “After spending this time in the wilds of Vermont, you have the nerve to tax me to pay for the privilege,” Johnson wrote in a letter to Hoyt. “I don’t think the aggravation I’ve had is worth the $3 million I earned for those nine weeks of exhausting work.”
The mention of Johnson’s letter drew a laugh from Molly Bachman when I brought it up over the phone last week. Bachman, who was hired by Hoyt and is now the tax department’s chief lawyer, also recalled the time that her former boss showed up at the Statehouse wearing Don Johnson’s trademark sunglasses and sports coat.
Hoyt was “politically savvy, but he wasn’t overly influenced by people with wealth and means,” said Bachman. “He didn’t hesitate to take on the powers that be.”
Particularly if they resided across the river. “He loved to tweak New Hampshire,” Kathy Hoyt said. In 1989, after a Dartmouth economics professor released a study that argued New Hampshire residents get more for their tax money than Vermonters, Hoyt fired back. “I always thought that New Hampshire was a great state if you had a ton of money and no social conscience,” he told The Associated Press.
Last Wednesday, I sat at the Hoyts’ dining room table with Kathy, their two sons, Mike and Chris, and Mike’s wife, Natalie. I learned a lot about Norrie that morning. How he had grown up Arlington, Mass., the son of a high school English teacher and an editor for a publishing house. And how, 40 years ago, as Kathy humorously recalled, he had wooed her with his knowledge of “negative taxation,” a form of social welfare.
Hoyt didn’t want a funeral. “He’d rather there be a party,” said Kathy. So on Sept. 14, friends and family plan to gather at the house in Norwich, where it’s likely a glass or two — Hoyt was fond of single malt Scotch — will be raised.
Considering all the good that Norrie Hoyt did as a public servant, I hope they have enough glasses.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.