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Column: Vermont Tax Information Remains Safe

Burlington, Vt.

Remind me not to go hunting with Tom Pelham, the author of the op-ed headlined “A Breach of Privacy in Vermont” published in the June 9 Sunday Valley News. He seems to believe “shoot first, aim later” is the proper order of things.

In his op-ed, Pelham asserts that I “slipped language into a bill giving legislative staff access to ‘state returns and return information’” on May 13, just one day before the Legislature adjourned for the year. If Pelham had made any attempt to contact me, which he did not, I could have spared him from making such a sloppy mistake.

The Senate Finance Committee proposed language allowing the Tax Department to provide confidential, non-identifying tax data to the Legislature’s nonpartisan Joint Fiscal Office on April 18. The language was included in a publicly available draft bill that was provided to a wide array of interests in the Statehouse — legislators from both political parties, lobbyists of all sorts and other interested people.

The language, which the committee always intended to clearly preserve the confidentiality of tax information and the privacy of taxpayers, was discussed in open sessions in the committee room on a number of occasions. Then the language passed in a bipartisan vote on the Senate floor, again a most public setting.

Throughout the life of this provision, reporters were aware of the language. In fact, the Burlington Free Press wrote a news article about it when another political partisan tried to turn it into a political issue. All of this occurred before my alleged “last-minute” inclusion of the tax provision.

Ultimately, Pelham failed to address the sole reason many legislators worked to advance this provision. Currently, the Legislature’s fiscal staff must request all tax data from the administration, including analysis of the implications of legislative tax proposals. The one administration official capable of analyzing the effect of changes in tax policy works just one day a week. This leaves the Legislature at the will and whim of the administration.

To be fair, under both Govs. Jim Douglas and Peter Shumlin, I have found Tax Department officials to have great integrity. Nonetheless, the Legislature is clearly not well served in its negotiations with the governor when we must hand over our policy playbook at the beginning of the game, and when our ability to receive information is limited by the availability of an eight-hour-a-week employee.

In the end, the tax provision passed overwhelmingly and with bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. Individual tax filings will remain confidential, and the Legislature will be better equipped to make good policy decisions in the coming years.

Tim Ashe, a Democrat/Progressive, represents Chittenden County in the Vermont Senate. He chairs the Senate Finance Committee.