The challenge of government is allocating scant resources to meet an insatiable demand.
As Vermont’s Legislature kicked off its 2014 session this week with a flurry of activity, residents got to see just what they are up against this year: a budget that’s $70 million in the red due largely to federal cutbacks; problems and cost overruns with its Vermont Health Connect system and the governor’s insistence on pursuing a single-payer system by 2017; increases in the statewide property tax to fund education even though student population is declining; and an opiate epidemic that has exploded statewide threatening the safety of citizens and putting costly demands on our ill-equipped treatment centers.
Add to that a commitment by a good many legislators and the administration not to rely on broad-based tax increases to solve those problems — or the dozens of other perplexing issues facing the state.
While reflecting on those problems, put yourself in the Legislature’s shoes and think for a moment what you would do.
With a moment’s worth of humility, the opening words House Speaker Shap Smith said to House members ring true to the state’s goals:
“We all share the same goals for Vermont. We want a healthy economy with good jobs. We want to make sure that our friends and neighbors have the tools necessary to unlock their individual potential. And we want strong, lively, vibrant communities that are safe for our kids and for our neighbors. We don’t always share the same views on how to achieve those goals. And that’s good. That’s okay. Because democracy is about the free exchange of ideas…
“There is an inherent tension in the work that we do, reflected in the motto of the seal that hangs above this podium: Freedom and Unity. Freedom: the individualism that is the bedrock of the citizens of this state of Vermont. And Unity: the idea that we can’t have a successful community without those individuals coming together. As lawmakers, we must work to create policies that benefit both the individual and the community as a whole…
“Each year we have significant challenges that present themselves. And we know that each year we come together, with the input of our constituents, the expertise of our legal and fiscal offices, and the hard work of the individuals within each of the committees, and find solutions to the challenges that we face.
“When I look out at you all, I don’t see Democrats. I don’t see Republicans. I don’t see Independents. I don’t see Progressives. I see people who are here to represent their communities, to represent the individuals within their communities. And I know that our communities sometimes send us here with conflicting instructions. They want us to represent them as individuals and they also want us to represent their community.
“It is our job to try to resolve those disparate interests and knit together the individual interests that ensure that we have the fabric of a strong society… So as we embark on this next session… let us not ever forget that we are working for our families, our neighbors, our friends. Let us find the strength in diversity of our views and work to knit those diverse interests together for the common good of this state that we all so love.”
Governor declares war on ‘opiate epidemic’
As the importance of education was the theme of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s 2013 inaugural address, the governor’s overarching theme in his State of the State address on Wednesday was combating the growing “opiate epidemic.”
“I want to spend time using my voice as governor to do a better job fighting a battle that we’re losing,” he said. “We are gaining addicts to opiates at a rate that, if it continues, will make it difficult for us to offer treatment in a system that’s already overrun with demand.”
The governor cited alarming statistics:
• 4,293 Vermonters were treated for some form of opiate addiction — for prescription drug abuse or heroin — in fiscal year 2012, up from about 1,000 in fiscal year 2005.
• This October, 1,482 residents were provided methadone, but the treatment centers can’t keep up. Another 1,200 Vermonters are on waiting lists for methadone, a medical therapy for heroin addicts. The typical wait time is two weeks; but in Chittenden County the wait times can be as long as 12 to 18 months.
• Every week the state’s Drug Task Force estimates more than $2 million of heroin and other opiates are being trafficked into Vermont. That’s money lost to our economy.
• Nearly 80 percent of the state’s incarcerated population are either addicted or in prison because of their addiction. A week in prison costs the state about $1,120 per inmate, but $123 will buy a week of treatment for a heroin addict at a state-funded center. Today, the governor said, “our state government spends more to imprison Vermonters than we do to support our colleges and universities, and our prison spending has doubled in the past nine years.
“You don’t have to be a math major to realize that we can’t afford our current path,” he continued. “We have to figure out how to spend taxpayer money more wisely, while we treat the disease more effectively.”
The question, of course, is what can the state do at what cost?
The governor laid out a four-step plan:
• Increase treatment centers across the state;
• Do a better job of convincing drug users that getting help is a better path than addiction. “Research tells us that an addict is most accepting of treatment right after the bust. It’s when the blue lights are flashing and cold reality sets in that we have our best shot. (But) here’s the problem, our current judicial system is not well-equipped to seize the moment.” The governor’s plan would add $760,000 to provide state prosecution efforts to speed up the process, known as evidence-based assessment and intervention programs, and get drug users into treatment centers, rather than have them spend months wending their way through the current prosecution system.
• Strengthen law enforcement and toughen penalties on drug dealers.
• Prevent addiction through education; part of that would be an $20,000 grant to enable filmmaker Bess O’Brien to take her film on opiate addiction in Vermont, “The Hungry Heart,” to every high school in Vermont.
As a focus and overarching theme of his address, the governor is wise to use his bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on the state’s, and the nation’s, “opiate epidemic.” It’s a problem to stop now, and if the state is successful, it will prevent a much bigger and more costly outlay of state funds down the road. So, set the process in motion. Spend the couple of millions he has outlined to accomplish the reasonable goals he outlined. Excite communities across the state to get involved.
Then get back to other priorities already set in motion.
The job—and the art—of government
Let’s recap the list of priorities the state has already embraced: creating an education system that prepares Vermont students for higher-paying jobs, solving the pollution problems of Lake Champlain, promoting renewable energy as a natural resource and job creator, continuing work on the western rail corridor, fixing the problems with Vermont Health Connect, and making all that—and much more—work within a budget that is starting out $70 million in the hole. Let’s even add another that has been a state priority for so long it often goes unsaid: working with the state’s job creators to insure Vermont is a welcome home and incubator to a stimulating job market.
In that holistic context, the job of government is impossible to do well.
Yet, for those who have the drive and tolerance to persevere, the art of governing is to do as much as you can each year well enough to make progress over time.
Before the critics begin, a note of thanks for those engaged in that effort.
Angelo S. Lynn