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Speaker Smith to vie for lieutenant governor

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Posted on May 19, 2016 |
By John Flowers



Shap Smith trio spaces RGB.jpg

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith is seeking Vermont’s second-highest constitutional office.

The 50-year-old Morrisville Democrat confirmed his bid for lieutenant governor on Tuesday during a far ranging interview at the Addison Independent.

“I do believe there are a lot of opportunities in the lieutenant governor’s race to make a difference,” Smith said. “I believe that office could be used even more effectively to convene people on the big issues of the day.”

Smith last year said he would not run for re-election to the Lamoille-Washington-1 House seat to which he was first elected in 2002, and instead would be a candidate for governor. But he withdrew from that race last fall after his wife, Melissa Volansky, was diagnosed with cancer. But on Tuesday he said his wife is making a strong recovery, to the extent that he is able to re-enter the political scene — this time as a candidate for lieutenant governor.

He joins a field that currently includes:

•  Republican Randy Brock, former state auditor and former Franklin County state senator.

•  State Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington.

•  Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Hinesburg, also a former state representative.

Former Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, who had been hinting at a statewide run of some kind in his WDEV radio show “A Reluctant Politician,” said on Wednesday he will not run for lieutenant governor in light of Smith’s announcement.

“Many of us had concerns about the field of candidates, but I believe Shap Smith will be good for the Senate and good for the state,” Ralston said in an email to the Independent. “He has unrivaled experience and skill in ‘presiding’ over a legislative body, but more importantly, if the need ever arises, he is the one person I would want there to step into the governor’s role.”

Smith has served as House speaker since January 2009. And he knows that as lieutenant governor, he would revisit many of the same issues that he is leaving in the rearview mirror as he leaves the House. Those issues, he said, include reforming health care, creating more affordable housing and finding ways to keep young Vermonters in state to start families, fill jobs and enjoy a more urban experience.

“Housing is a huge issue,” Smith said of the lack of affordable, starter homes.

He is disappointed the Legislature did not pass a “workforce housing” bill this year sponsored by Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, and supported by such local lawmakers as Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury.

“I thought (the bill) offered a really good pilot program to see whether we could provide some incentives for infrastructure in creating some workforce housing,” Smith said. “This is a long-term issue throughout the state. It’s particularly acute in counties like Addison and Chittenden, and more and more so in Lamoille County. We just have to figure out a way that we can build a housing stock that is affordable for people in the 28- to 35-year-old range. I think that is critical to our future growth as a state and to our demographic challenges.”

HEALTH CARE CHALLENGE

Smith also believes health care will “continue to be a big challenge for the state.”

“The payment reform changes … are going to require us to move in a new direction about the way we pay for health care,” he said. “I think the sustainability of some of our smaller hospitals is in question in the long term.”

He noted the UVM Medical Center continues to become stronger and the most dominant health care facility in the state. As a consequence, smaller community hospitals — like Porter Medical Center — are finding it tougher to compete for patients, particularly when it comes to high-tech procedures involving expensive and very sophisticated equipment, he said.

“There are positives and challenges about having a medical center (like UVM) in Vermont,” Smith said. “It’s a huge engine, it can create a lot of support for the local hospitals, but there are legitimate concerns about whether we will continue to have local input and local care in the diversity of services that we have now.”

He believes that state government has a “critical role” to play in shaping the evolving health care system. He acknowledged hospitals like Porter are in the process of changing their revenue models from a straight fee for services to payment based on patient outcomes.

“The payment-for-service model, I think, does encourage the growth of (health care) expenses,” Smith said. “Nobody has gotten ‘pay for performance’ right just yet, but I think that is the direction we should move in.”

At the same time, he noted, the chronically underfunded federal Medicare and Medicaid health insurance subsidy programs continue to limit the state’s flexibility in making over its health care system.

“In the long term, if we are going to create any sustainability in the government’s spending on heath care, we are going to have to (convert to pay for performance),” Smith said.

Vermonters, Smith said, must engage in a re-imagining of what small hospitals look like and the services they can provide.

“We are going to have to acknowledge that in some instances, we are not going to be able to provide the same suite of services,” he said. “Vermont is not unique in this regard. In rural America, it is getting harder and harder to provide medical services … I think we’re going to have to understand that some of the hospitals that exist now are probably going to continue to exist, but they may not provide all the services they do now.”

Smith suggested that smaller Vermont hospitals have a dialogue with their respective communities on what medical services need to be provided to keep their local regions vital and attractive to potential new residents and businesses.

“It may be different in Middlebury than it is in Morristown or Newport,” he said of the health care priorities, which must include eliminating duplicative services.

“It’s a conversation not unlike what has been happening with our schools,” he said.

“What is it that allows a community to maintain its vitality?” Smith asked. “Is it a hospital? Is it the local school? And at what price are we willing to pay for it?”

Another issue Smith will focus on is keeping communities vital, especially to keep young people in the state after they finish their schooling here (see story by clicking here).

LEGISLATIVE HIGHLIGHTS

Smith believes his 14 years in the House have given him the experience and perspective on statewide issues to make him a good lieutenant governor. He is pleased with many of the initiatives passed by the House this past session, including bills that:

•  Guarantee paid sick leave for Vermont workers.

•  Prohibit employers from asking questions about prior criminal convictions on an initial job application.

•  Give communities and regional planning commissions more say in the siting of solar farms, provided they draft energy plans compatible with Vermont’s renewable energy priorities.

•  Advance Act 46, the state’s new education governance unification law. Three Addison County supervisory unions have voted to unify their respective districts under Act 46, and a fourth (Addison Northeast) will vote on unification this November.

•  Reform penalties for driving with a suspended license. It provides amnesty for thousands of Vermonters carryingold (pre-1990) driving-with-suspended-license citations. Also, during a three-month period later this year, Vermonters will be able to pay off outstanding traffic violations at a rate of $30 per ticket.

No bill generated more debate in Addison County than S.230, the solar siting bill. New Haven has become a hub for solar projects, largely due to the proximity of three-phase power hookups and ample open fields off Route 7. Some local municipal officials and individuals had lobbied for a more substantial community say in the siting of solar arrays, a determination that is currently made by the three-person Vermont Public Service Board.

“This is a tricky issue, because we do have these statewide goals and we do have infrastructure needs,” Smith said, alluding to the target of having the state derive 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

“I think of this like a gas pipeline, a new highway or other types of transportation infrastructure, where you’ve got to create a mechanism that takes into consideration the overall public good of the state, in conjunction with local community concerns,” Smith said.

He wants to maintain the state goals and says local concerns need to be reconciled in a way that “doesn’t just allow for continual vetoes of projects. We can’t just say, ‘Just say no.’”

Smith called S.230 “an elegant solution” to integrating local concerns into regional plans that would take into account the overall state renewable energy goals.

At the same time, Smith says, the state should re-evaluate the generous economic incentives it approved several years ago to encourage renewable energy development.

“The economic benefits of this probably need to be re-jiggered a little bit,” he said. “I do think we gave some incentives for early adopters that were meant to spur growth when it wasn’t happening at all. Now we can ratchet it back a little bit. The industry is becoming more mature; there’s no doubt about that.

“I think we are going to have to see how (S.230) works for a couple of years before we revisit the issue,” he said.

MARIJUANA POLICY

One of the biggest political battles of 2016 involved a measure seeking to legalize possession of small quantities of recreational marijuana. The Senate OK’d a comprehensive legalization bill, but the House balked at it, instead calling for further study of the issue.

“I do think the policy of (marijuana) prohibition is not working,” Smith said. “But there was a real split not only between the House and Senate, but a split even between the people who supported legalization. There were people who wanted a more commercialized system like the Senate bill, and there were those who were more inclined to go with a ‘home-grown’ model. That was something I hoped we could get some consensus around in the House. What became clear to me, as we approached the end of the session, was that we were not going to be able to build any consensus in the House about anything (on pot legislation). Part of that was based on a suspicion that if we sent a bill back to the Senate, it would go into a conference committee and people would have no control over what the outcome would look like.”

He credited Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, among others, with their handling of the issue in House Judiciary, “a committee that was very split about it. I think they did as much as they could have to get a bill out of committee.”

The Legislature has not seen the end of the marijuana debate, according to Smith.

“My view is that this issue is coming and we will probably see something in the next couple of years,” he said. “It just wasn’t ready this year.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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