MIDDLEBURY — Back in 1992 when Lamoille County Sen. Susan Bartlett told her husband, Bill, that she wanted to run for the state Senate, he was supportive, to say the least.
“He said, ‘That’s the best idea you’ve had in a long time,’” Bartlett related during a recent interview. “And we came out of nowhere and won.”
The longtime chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee is hoping to share more of her ideas as she battles four others to become the Democratic candidate for governor. Bartlett says she is used to challenges. After all, she was the first woman and the first Democrat to serve Lamoille County in the state Senate.
Bartlett faces Sen. President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin of Putney, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz of Montpelier, former Sen. Matt Dunne of Hartland, and Sen. Doug Racine of Richmond in the Aug. 24 Democratic Primary. She said moderate Democrats are key to winning the primary, and eventually, the governorship. Known for her frankness and gregarious nature, Bartlett didn’t mince words in making a bold prediction.
“Everyone knows the moderates can’t win primaries,” she said. “The activists tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. I’ve said from the beginning that if the middle participates in the primary, I will win the primary.”
The field of five is the largest Vermont has seen running for the state’s top office in years, and Bartlett said what distinguishes her from her fellow Democrats is her experience leading the powerful Appropriations Committee, which determines funding for every branch of state government. She said it is the perfect education for the governor’s office.
“It isn’t just the money,” she said. “You get involved in every aspect of policy. I have a very clear understanding of all the parts of government and what’s working and, more importantly, what’s not working.”
Bartlett said she has also learned to say “no,” which may not be popular, but is key to successful leadership. She is also confident.
“I could step into the governor’s office tomorrow and I wouldn’t have much of a learning curve,” she said. “What I’ve learned to do is say ‘no’ a lot. That does not make unions and special interest groups endorse you. In the current financial situation, being able to say ‘no’ in a firm but thoughtful and reasonable manner is key.”
CLOSING THE BUDGET GAP
Bartlett has a thorough formula for bridging the expected $120 million state budget shortfall Vermont will face in 2011, fashioned after the Challenges for Change (CFC) bill initiated during the last session. CFC is a product of the Appropriations Committee and the Douglas administration designed to cut state government costs in order to close this year’s $38 million budget shortfall. The goal is to identify outcomes, examine cost-effectiveness, and streamline spending.
While Bartlett is a big supporter of the CFC concept, she is by no means in favor of the Douglas administrations’ take on the bill.
“I would’ve called it ‘Choices’ instead of ‘Challenges,’” she said. “But the administration went away behind closed doors for seven weeks, than came out and plopped this down and the end of the session was a frustrating scramble by the Legislature to try and get it glued back together.”
CFC tasked certain agencies and departments with looking at cost-effectiveness. Bartlett said areas like education and health and human services were chosen because they were branches of government that were perceived to have a higher probability of success at cutting costs. She said if elected governor, she would take the concept and apply it to every branch of government.
“We all scream about Challenges for Change,” Bartlett said, “But it’s about getting every piece of state government on board and finding out what the priorities are. This is not temporary. This is a permanent change in the way the state spends money. If programs don’t address the outcomes, then it’s time to stop doing them. Our problem in government is, once we start doing programs, we never stop them.”
Bartlett said that strategy would also go a long way to creating more inclusiveness in state government, something she said the current administration lacks.
“It’s their style … This administration’s capacity to be open and work with people is non-existent,” she said. “The people that get it are already asking their employees to do this. We are finally asking the most important people, the state employees, for help with solutions.”
TECHNOLOGY AND TRANSPARENCY
Bartlett also would like to streamline the use of technology in state government, which she said would also lead to cost savings in the long run.
“We have not used technology to its full advantage at all,” she said. “We are making significant investments in technology, but we have whole arms of government that can’t communicate with each other. It creates stunning inefficiency and frustration.”
Bartlett noted that improvements are being made, for instance, on the Agency of Natural Resources website. Right now, a contractor can’t go to the site and find a water permit, she said, or find the right person to ask about a permit without getting the runaround.
“We need to ask, ‘What are the goals? What are we trying to accomplish? And gain more transparency in the process.”
That is a major source of frustration for Bartlett as head of Appropriations.
“Revenues are down, and you’ve got trucks backing up and dumping information on you, and the information is questionable,” she said. “Instead of knowing what the outcomes are and how they are measured, instead of having truly valuable information and knowing there will be a profound impact on people’s lives, and it’s really, really frustrating as an appropriator.”
Bartlett wants a system where any taxpayer can access an agency’s or department’s website and see the services that are offered, the outcomes desired, and how much money is being spent on programs.
“As an appropriator, that’s what I’d like to know, and as a taxpayer what I really want to know,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s fair to ask people to pay any more until the government goes through this process.”
AN ECONOMIC PLAN
Another key element in closing the state’s fiscal gap is generating more revenue. When Bartlett was introduced to John Cronin, the former chief inventor for IBM, the two hit it off immediately, and the seed of the senator’s jobs plan was planted.
Cronin runs ipCapital Group and employs about 20 people worldwide to work with inventors and help them through the patent process, turning ideas into businesses. In the same way Vermont became the national center for captive insurance — a specialized, highly regulated business for companies that become their own insurance providers — Bartlett and Cronin want to make Vermont a center for nurturing innovation and intellectual property.
“Patents lead to investors,” Bartlett said. “It’s how you grow wealth.”
Bartlett said if elected, she would create an Office of Innovation and International Property at the Statehouse, which would offer the same service that Cronin performs, but on a state level. Inventors would be directed to the office for consultation and guidance through the lengthy patent process, which Bartlett said can take up to two years and $20,000.
“When we find a great idea worth patenting, we would work with the inventor and help them move forward and get their patent,” she said.
Bartlett excitedly explained that the concept could tie into any industry — food, wind power, weatherization, construction, computers or engineering. She also said the idea would create businesses homegrown right here in Vermont, instead of relying on out-of-state companies to relocate here, and would create high-paying jobs as a result. She said the program could be run through a state grant program.
“With the history and desire in this state, all the pieces are right here,” she said. “No other state is doing this. And I haven’t encountered a single time when I’ve mentioned this without someone saying, ‘Oh, my brother invented this,’ or ‘My cousin invented this.’”
Other points in Bartlett’s economic jobs plan, in her own words:
• “Fund regional economic development offices properly so they can create jobs instead of raising money trying to keep their doors open. Let them become the central point in each region.”
• “Small businesses do not have access to capital in this economy because the federal government has clamped down on bank capital and the banks aren’t taking risks and lending to small business. I propose, with the Vermont Economic Development Authority, to create a program to work with small business to take the risks. We need to get VEDA a couple of million dollars and open the doors for the banks so they can do for small business what they do for large businesses.”
• “The hardest hit part of the economy are the building trades, and so many are independent contractors. I propose, for two years, borrowing an additional $15 million to put into the Office of Housing and Conservation, and they’ll turn it into $60 million using federal programs. We could start our own little stimulus, help the trades and address the housing and lack of affordable housing.”
• “One of the problems in this permanently changed global economy is that the businesses we want are businesses we grow right here,” she said. “The odds of them staying here are much greater when they start here.”
Another homegrown institution near and dear to Bartlett is education, and she has very definitive ideas about consolidation. The senator, who has experience in special education, said if elected, after five years, there would be 14 school districts, one for each county in the state centered around a technical center.
“To get to consolidation would take a half hour,” she said. “Take the five schools with the best management practices and within five years, every school in the state should implement those practices.”
Bartlett also believes in establishing a minimum/maximum class size formula, that would trigger classroom shifts by consolidating classes when class sizes reach a minimum, or adding teachers when classes hit a maximum size. She scoffed at the notion that, as some have said, consolidating supervisory unions would only save 2 percent in spending and not necessarily improve education.
“The agents for ‘no change’ are so good at that stuff,” she said shaking her head. “I guarantee it will achieve and create more educational opportunity in that district than you can even imagine on a smaller district scale. Larger districts create more choices.”
Bartlett also said she would do away with the state Board of Education and she would make the commissioner of education a cabinet post.
Bartlett is hopeful that implementation of Act 128, which passed last session, will address health care reform. The bill allowed the formation of the Vermont Health Care Reform Commission, which analyzed proposals and was hired a firm to create implementation plans for three different options for a new statewide health care system that would cover all Vermonters.
In late June, the commission chose the study proposal of Dr. William Hsiao, a professor of economics at the Harvard University School of Public Health and a preeminent expert on the design of health care systems. He most recently created a universal health plan for Taiwan.
Bartlett is confident that Hsiao will come back with a single-payer health care plan for Vermont that will merge with the federal health care reform bill passed earlier this year.
“His was the only proposal that had political scientists involved,” Bartlett said. “He gets it. If you don’t get the politics, it’s never going to happen.”
Bartlett said her campaign manager, John Bauer, gets very frustrated at the innumerable candidate forums held around the state, where she and her four Democratic challengers all appear together to discuss the issues and take questions from voters.
“I’ll usually start and by the time the conversation comes around to (my opponents), they all keep saying “Well, I agree with Susan on this,’ she said laughing. “It drives my campaign manager crazy.”
But does it bother the candidate?
“Listen,” she said with a smile. “I’ve got so many ideas, they can have as many of my ideas as they want.”