By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — It’s still early in the election year, but Middlesex Progressive Anthony Pollina has already grown weary of leaders in Montpelier saying what they “can’t” do for Vermonters, either due to scant finances or the sheer complexity of the problems at hand.
So, Pollina has decided to run for governor to tell citizens what state government “can” do for them.
“Overall, I would say I share the same frustration that a lot of other Vermonters share with the current governor (Middlebury Republican James Douglas), who tends to be holding us back from dealing with the challenges we face,” Pollina, 56, said during a March 28 interview with the Addison Independent. “The way I would categorize it is, the current governor spends too much time lecturing us about all the things he thinks we cannot do.”
Pollina, during a far ranging interview, discussed his stand on a variety of campaign issues, including health care reform, boosting affordable housing and creating new jobs. He also addressed the perception, held by some in the Statehouse, that his candidacy could siphon votes from a Democrat challenger to Douglas. Vermont Democrats have yet to field a candidate for governor.
Pollina is no stranger to statewide races and controversy.
In 1984, he was the Democratic and Rainbow Coalition candidate for U.S. Congress.
He ran the first-ever Progressive Party campaign for governor in 2000, polling 10 percent of the vote. He followed that up in 2002 with a bid for lieutenant governor, garnering 25 percent of the vote in a very competitive race.
He has most recently been working with the Vermont Democracy Fund, a Montpelier-based nonprofit organization that is “committed to giving working families and family farmers a stronger voice in public policy,” according to its mission statement. Pollina had been the policy director at Vermont Public Interest Research group (VPIRG), was the founder of the group Rural Vermont, has served as an advisor to Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and hosted a radio talk show on WDEV 96.1 FM.
He announced his latest bid for governor on March 15 and is taking aim at Douglas, whom he claimed has fallen into a pattern of making excuses for why the state cannot do such things as buying hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut River, substantially lowering the costs of health care or investing more intensively in agriculture.
“Like a lot of Vermonters, I would prefer us to have a governor who … sits us down and starts talking about the things we can do,” Pollina said.
With that in mind, Pollina vowed to run a vigorous campaign during which he plans to outline a variety of plans to tackle the state’s biggest challenges, such as implementing new health care reforms, creating more jobs and boosting Vermont’s stock of affordable homes.
“Right now, we’re wasting a lot of time with a governor who doesn’t seem to want to get the job done,” Pollina said.
Pollina said the state deserves credit for extending health care to its most needy residents, but believes Vermont hasn’t done enough to lower insurance costs that he said are “bankrupting families, businesses and school districts.”
“It’s one thing to extend coverage to the uninsured; it’s another thing to actually lower that cost of health care.”
Pollina argued the state should take control of its health care system and vest in physicians more of the power in determining how medical services are allocated to patients.
“We don’t need private insurance companies who, among other things, are running our health care when our doctors and providers should be doing that,” Pollina said, arguing that insurers, “in too many cases, dictate when someone can go into the hospital or leave the hospital.”
Reducing insurers’ power and influence, Pollina argued, would save the health care system some money and result in lower costs for medical services. The savings would be realized by having less bureaucracy associated with insurance companies, according to Pollina.
“Thirty cents of every dollar that we spend on health care is essentially wasted on bureaucracy and paperwork and chasing after insurance companies,” Pollina said. “I think we would be better if we have all of us in one insurance pool and we all pay based on our ability.
“If we were all in one system and contracted out the administration of that system, we could save a significant amount of money,” Pollina said.
Douglas has noted that Vermont is somewhat limited in the extent to which it could overhaul its health care system due to federal restrictions — including those that govern how Medicaid and Medicare money may be used at the statewide level. Vermont has sought, with very limited success, waivers that would allow it more flexibility in how it could use its federally allocated health care dollars.
Pollina is optimistic there will be changes on the political scene this November that will raise the hopes of Vermont securing federal health care spending waivers.
“There are always going to be challenges, but the bottom line is the current system is bankrupting families and business and is resulting in a lot of people going without the health care that they need,” Pollina said.
GOOD JOBS LEAD TO HOUSING
“You can’t talk about affordable housing without talking about the economy overall,” Pollina said. “I think we have to keep in mind that the average family cannot afford the average Vermont home.”
Pollina said the median price for a home in Vermont has climbed 101 percent during the past 10 years.
“Clearly, wages have not kept pace with that increase,” he said.
Pollina believes it would be appropriate for Vermont lawmakers to loosen the regulatory process and provide some financial incentives for developers to create more affordable homes. But that, alone, would not solve the housing problem, he said. He argued that the broader solution lies in creating better paying jobs “so people can afford to buy a home.”
At this point, according to Pollina, only two (nursing and executive secretary) of the top 10 fastest growing job sectors in Vermont pay a “housing wage” — one that enables the employee to spend one-third or less of his or her salary on shelter.
“We’ve lost a lot of good manufacturing jobs and replaced them with a lot of (lesser paying) service jobs,” Pollina said.
He believes the state could further boost the cause of low-cost housing by establishing an “equity fund” that could be tapped by organizations that pledge to build homes that are perpetually affordable. That fund could be financed, in part, by closing a loophole in Vermont’s capital gains tax.
Vermont currently exempts 40 percent of all capital gains from the state income tax. The Legislature has balked at changing that exemption this year.
While Pollina agrees that Vermont should be rolling out the red carpet for out-of-state firms, he believes more should be done to nurture and grow businesses currently operating within the Green Mountain State.
His strategy for growing jobs includes promoting the state’s assets, such as quality of life, beauty and education system; taking steps to lower the health care and energy expenses that business currently face; and encouraging area institutions to invest 2 percent of their investment portfolios in a Vermont equity fund that would be used to attract and develop new businesses.
Pollina said Vermont should make a particular effort in reaching out to firms specializing in renewable energy, Internet technology and traditional blue-collar industries — such as dairy and meat production. He helped establish the Vermont Milk Company, which aims to get more money into the pockets of dairy farmers; he resigned from the Hardwick company’s board after he announced his candidacy for governor.
Pollina noted Douglas’s emphasis on stemming the rise of local property taxes. But while he acknowledged concern about the property tax, he cited other expenses that are taking an even larger toll on household budgets.
“We’re talking about a national problem, really,” Pollina said “Vermont is being battered by globalization, high gas prices, high health care costs, just like everybody else is. But I believe that most of those other costs are a bigger strain on the average family’s budget than taxes, quite frankly.”
If offered the choice between a 50-percent cut in their property taxes and the same percentage decrease in either their fuel or health care costs, Pollina believes most families would pick one of the latter two.
“Health care and food, quite frankly, take a bigger cut out of the average family budget than property taxes,” Pollina said. “I’m not saying ‘Raise property taxes’; what I’m saying is, ‘Let’s take a look at how we can address the cost of living.’”
Pollina extended the same idea to public school funding. He said schools are often targeted for rising costs that are, in fact, greatly related to rising fuel costs and health care premiums.
“If we got health care costs and fuel costs under control, those are some of the key drivers in the increase of school budgets,” said Pollina.
PRICEY STATE COLLEGES
Schools need to become more affordable for Vermonters, according to Pollina, including those offering post-secondary education.
“I think it’s really unacceptable that Vermont continues to have the most expensive state colleges in the country,” said Pollina, a graduate of Johnson State College. “It’s bad for our economy and it’s bad for families and kids who sometimes realize at a very early age that they cannot afford to go to college. It really undermines their motivation to do well in high school.”
Vermont, during the 1990s, increased funding for its state prisons by 150 percent, according to Pollina. The state increased funding for its state colleges by 7 percent during the same timeframe, he said.
“We find more money for prisons, and I actually think we’d be a lot better off if we did a little more to send kids to college and a little less to send them to prison,” Pollina said.
Pollina rejects the notion that as a Progressive, he will not be able to build broad enough political and electoral support to win a statewide election. Some state Democrats believe Pollina’s presence in the 2002 race for lieutenant governor cost Putney Democrat Peter Shumlin a victory. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie won the race with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Pollina noted that Democrats Doug Racine, Peter Clavelle and Scudder Parker challenged Douglas during the past three election cycles and failed to beat him without a high-profile Progressive candidate in the race.
“This is the time to try something different, to find a candidate who can cross party lines and bring together not only Progressives and Democrats, but quite frankly, Republicans and independents as well,” Pollina said. “I think I can do that based on my past experience. This is an opportunity to build a coalition that brings together Democrats, Progressives and a lot of disaffected Republicans.”