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Editorial: A time to hunker down or move forward? Shumlin for governor

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Posted on October 21, 2010 |
By Angelo S. Lynn



A time to hunker down or move forward? Shumlin for governor

In the race for governor, Vermonters have rarely had the opportunity to choose between two leading candidates with such stark differences on the issues.

Looking at the two campaigns from a big-picture perspective, Democrat Peter Shumlin believes Vermont’s future is full of economic promise if we use the state’s smallness to our advantage by remaining flexible, innovative and progressive. Republican Brian Dubie, on the other hand, believes the state has to hunker down for the next several years, cut government services and education spending in order to balance the budget and reduce state income taxes for the richest Vermonters.

That generalization, of course, deserves more detail. Let’s examine the different campaigns and approaches each candidate would take as governor, issue by issue:

• EDUCATION
Peter Shumlin maintains that better educational outcomes will lay the foundation for Vermont’s future successes — from higher wages, to lower poverty rates, to more job growth. To that end, he will seek ways to expand early education to three- and four-year-olds, and increase adult education and work training programs. He wants to adopt Maine’s example and offer Vermont students tax credits to pay for their college education if they accept jobs in the state and continue to work here until their educational expenses are paid off. He would place added emphasis on technical education and internships, career awareness and distance learning. While he maintains that the state’s educational system cannot be held harmless from fiscal accountability, his vision is to restructure the system to find savings, rather than impose state-mandated cuts across the board. He embraces the idea that education is an economic driver for Vermont’s economy, and is eager to oversee changes in the current system to make that a reality.

Brian Dubie has a very different outlook. While no one can accuse him of not believing in the value of education or not striving to seek better outcomes, his stated policies are few and driven by the desire to cap state spending on education to 2 percent growth for the next few years.

Bottom line: Because school budgets are labor intensive and because teacher contracts routinely rise more than 2 percent per year (and health insurance costs often exceed 10 percent per year), that cap mandates even greater cuts in school spending as dictated by Montpelier. That lessens local control and forces schools to retrench, not rebuild. It also backs educators into a corner right off the bat, which is no place to begin talks of reform. In an era in which the global economy places a premium on knowledge-based jobs, Dubie’s drive to reduce spending on education hampers the future prospects of Vermont’s youth and undermines the future ability of the state to attract high-paying jobs. Shumlin’s approach won’t reduce taxes, but it does offer Vermont’s youth hope for better jobs in an increasingly competitive marketplace and lays the groundwork for job growth in the state through a better-educated workforce.

• ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Shumlin believes the most important factor to creating more jobs is to reduce the cost of health care for employees. With a single-payer health care system, he says, Vermont’s business community would be more competitive. At best, it’s a distant goal with long-term savings. In the short-term, Shumlin believes collaboration with state government is necessary to promote business growth, notably: incentives for biomass, wind and solar energy; helping farmers diversify through technical training; helping to establish regional food processing centers to encourage more local food businesses; actively advocate for the Western rail corridor from Burlington through Rutland to Albany; and working with business to extend broadband and cell service to the last mile, among other initiatives.

While Dubie has a few specific incentives he would put in place, if the Legislature agrees, his plan to grow jobs hinges on cutting taxes and curbing regulations — the same approach as practiced by the Douglas administration for the past eight years.

Bottom line: Shumlin’s single-payer plan isn’t going to have an impact soon, but moving toward a system that reduces double-digit increases annually is a priority for the business community. In the meantime, states all across the country have effectively created niche markets that thrive through special initiatives. Shumlin’s approach would develop the foundation for select new markets and job growth. Simply cutting taxes for the rich didn’t create more jobs under President Bush, and there is no reason to believe it will work for Dubie either.

•SOCIAL ISSUES
Shumlin supports a woman’s right to choose, supports Vermont’s marriage equality law, and has supported a law on allowing end of life options when facing terminal illness. In each case, the objective is to keep government out of the affairs of the individual and to expand civil liberties.

Dubie opposes a woman’s right to choose to have a safe abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. He opposes Vermont’s marriage equality law, and is opposed to a law that would create end of life choices. In each case, Dubie would have the state restrict the civil liberties of individuals.

Bottom line: In the best of Vermont traditions, Shumlin relies on the individual to choose what’s right for each person and keeps the state from restricting personal liberties. Dubie does not.

•CORRECTIONS BUDGET
Reducing spending on corrections prompted the most controversial commercials in the campaign as Dubie jumped on Shumlin’s plan to reduce spending in the corrections department by $40 million. Dubie’s ads claimed Shumlin would release rapists and child molesters into the streets. It was an absurd allegation and untrue, but the attack ads caught the public’s attention for weeks and started a war of mudslinging and misinformation.

Shumlin’s position is that the status quo cannot be maintained. It is the third largest departmental expense in the budget and growing excessively. To reduce that growth, Shumlin argues that non-violent prison inmates should serve part of their time in lower-cost environments. Furthermore, because the recidivism rate for Vermont prisoners averages 70 percent (the percent of prisoners who commit another crime and return to jail after their initial release), Shumlin advocates more education and training for non-violet prisoners so they eventually contribute to the tax base, rather than be a continual drain on the budget. While such expense would not produce immediate savings, as Shumlin initially claimed, it would likely produce long-term savings.

Dubie has no specific plan to reduce expenses in the corrections budget, though his 2 percent cap on spending would cut more than $32 million out of that budget — not much less than Shumlin’s proposal (which drew Dubie’s ridicule.) When confronted with that reality, Dubie said he would exempt the corrections budget from his proposed cap.

Bottom line: Shumlin deserves credit for being willing to tackle the problem, but over-promised the immediate savings. Dubie not only ducked the issue, but misled voters with his commercials and when confronted with his own cuts, promised an exemption. Vermonters are best served by taking the long-term approach advocated by Shumlin. It’s the right thing to do and will save the state money down the road.

• HEALTH CARE:
Shumlin promotes moving to a single-payer health care system, maintaining it would save the state and business community millions of dollars each year. His plan counts on getting a waiver from the federal government before 2017, the likelihood of which is possible but surely questionable.

Dubie maintains the status quo, saying that private industry knows best and that the state is too small to make such changes on its own. He fears a single-payer system would increase costs, despite the fact that health care costs in Vermont have doubled, from $2.5 billion to more than $5 billion, since Douglas and Dubie took office eight years ago.

Bottom line: There is good reason to leave well enough alone. Vermont has one of the best health care systems in the country and it’s doubtful cost savings will be seen any time soon. But by keeping the status quo, Dubie would stymie creative thinking on health care and watch as health care costs doubled again in the next eight years. Shumlin would press ahead, and even if federal waivers were not granted until 2017, Vermonters would be positioned to lead the nation, and reap new energy (think young professionals) and job growth that comes with breaking new ground in any industry.

•ENERGY:
Shumlin, who was an initial proponent of Vermont Yankee in its early years, has been adamant that the plant not be re-licensed in 2012, and that Entergy, the owners, make full restitution for decommissioning costs. His firm commitment has been to protect Vermont taxpayers from bailing out Entergy if they try to default on their fiscal responsibilities. The lost power would be replaced from other suppliers on New England’s grid along with a statewide push to develop more renewable energy and increased conservation efforts.

Dubie has been a staunch supporter of keeping the aging plant operating past its 2012 expiration date with existing management. Because of recent problems at the plant, he now says that Entergy will have to prove it can operate the plant safely, but he has set no conditions for the company to meet. Dubie worries the cost of electricity will go up if VY closes, which will hurt businesses and the state’s prospects for economic growth.

Bottom line: First, there is no shortage of power. The issue is, at what cost? VY power rates for the next contract, if the license were extended, would undoubtedly go up, but Vermont officials have gotten no indication from Entergy by how much. Add poor management of the plant, its aging condition and the cost of cleanup of current leaks and the future decommissioning, and it posing troubling scenarios. We have no objection to nuclear power as a source of energy, and recognize its advantages in reducing our carbon footprint. But lack of trust in Entergy to do what’s right for Vermont (as opposed to their stockholders) prompts us to believe we should decommission the plant in 2012, make sure Vermonters are not left holding the bag for any of those expenses, and work to develop renewable sources of energy for Vermont’s future. Shumlin would do that; Dubie would not.

•TAXES:
Shumlin recognizes Vermont is a high tax state and agrees that Vermonters, in general, are at their tax capacity. He has advocated tax reductions for middle-income Vermonters, but would not reduce taxes on the wealthiest 1,400 Vermonters as Dubie proposes.

Dubie’s focus is to reduce the highest state income tax rates from about 9 percent to 6.9 percent over three years. To make up for the loss of revenue, he is imposing a 2 percent cap on state spending (except for notable exceptions, which in turn impose more draconian caps — or perhaps cuts — in other parts of the budget.)

Bottom line: In the past eight years, cuts in state spending on education imposed by Douglas have driven up local property taxes, moves that Dubie endorsed. Dubie’s proposal to cap spending at 2 percent (including on education) effectively gives a tax break to the wealthy, while again driving up property taxes for middle income Vermonters. That’s just wrong. Vermonters understand there is no free lunch. You pay for what you get. If Vermonters want good schools, decent roads and bridges, safe communities and a high quality of life, there is a cost, but it’s generally worth it. What’s needed is a multi-year effort to restructure state taxes to meet the needs of a changing business, education and social service environment. Shumlin has the business background and managerial skills to make that happen.

•PERSONAL BACKGROUND:
Shumlin was born and raised in Putney, Vt., and with his brother, Jeff, has expanded the family student-travel and study abroad business significantly. It is a Vermont success story of hard work, business acumen and creative thinking. He served in the House and Senate from 1990 to 2002, the last five years as Senate President pro-tempore. After a four-year hiatus, he was reelected to the Senate in 2006 and immediately named President pro-tempore by his peers — a sure sign that he has the trust and respect of his fellow legislators. During his 13 years in the Senate, he has served on the Rules Committee, the Finance Committee, the Transportation Committee and the Appropriations Committee. He has drafted legislative budgets, helped craft and guide legislation to meet legislative goals and has worked with three governors. As a successful businessman, he has met payrolls for more than two decades and understands what it takes to help businesses grow and thrive. He is a father of two daughters, Olivia, 19, and Rebecca, 17. He is also a part-time partner in a small dairy farm in Putney.

Republican Brian Dubie catapulted into the job as Lieutenant Governor, running alongside Gov. James Douglas, with no experience in the Legislature but with a popular image as a National Guardsman in an era (November 2002) in which the country was gun-ho to go to war with Iraq. In his years as Lt. Gov., he has chaired the governor’s Homeland Security Advisory Council and the governor’s Commission on Healthy Aging, plus he founded the Vermont Aerospace and Aviation Association in 2006 to stimulate economic development in that field.
He has a successful career as a pilot with American Airlines (since 1988), where he is now captain and has had a successful part-time career in the National Guard where he is currently a colonel in the Air Force Reserve. His prior experience in elective office, before being elected lieutenant governor, was serving from 1995 to 2000 on the Essex Junction School Board. He is married with four children.

Bottom line: We reviewed the personal background of each candidate to remind our readers that, aside from the nastiness of the campaign, both men have given much to their communities and state and would serve Vermont well as governor.

We place a priority, however, on the candidate who understands the need for change, flexibility, creative thinking and innovation, and has the foresight today’s economy demands for states and businesses to be one step ahead of their competitors. That leader also needs the business savvy to appoint innovative thinkers as department heads and encourage their independence. And Vermont needs a leader who understands the value of education as an economic driver and as a tool for significant job growth. Democrat Peter Shumlin is that candidate.

Republican Brian Dubie, on the other hand, has based his campaign on the simplistic notion that cutting taxes solves all ills (it doesn’t), and the premise that Vermont needs to retrench through cuts in social programs and education. Add to that his dogmatic thinking on social issues, and it’s a recipe for eight years of stagnation and regression.

Shumlin deserves your vote and the opportunity to take the state in a direction that offers new hope and inspiration.

Angelo S. Lynn

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