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Editorial: Shumlin's bold vision shadows a weakness amid lofty goals

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Posted on March 26, 2014 |
By Angelo Lynn



Gov. Peter Shumlin’s strength, as witnessed by his Monday visit to Middlebury to speak at a legislative luncheon, is the mile-high clarity through which he sees political challenges.

A corresponding weakness is that he too quickly dismisses the swamps that lie in the weeds of detail between his lofty goals. It’s a trait that transcends issues, from the natural gas pipeline, to health care reform and school governance.

Consider his conviction supporting the value of the natural gas pipeline running through Addison County on its way to Rutland, via the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. His perspective is based on a few unassailable facts: natural gas is currently 50 percent cheaper than propane or heating oil; at the point of consumption it cuts carbon emissions by about 25 percent compared to fuel oil or propane; while it is a fossil fuel, the state won’t have the capacity to be 90 percent sufficient on renewable energy for another 35 years, so (because natural gas is better than other fossil fuels) we should use natural gas as a bridge fuel until the market determines renewable energy is less expensive.

Bam. Case closed.

Only it’s not.

Not accounted for are the personal tribulations of homeowners as they deal with Vermont Gas Systems and the likelihood of eminent domain proceedings, and this basic question: Is the state doing all it should for Vermont residents in these circumstances?

The governor answers that question by maintaining that the highest public good for Vermont is to create a robust and viable economy. Extending the natural gas pipeline, he argues, reduces living expenses for thousands of Vermont residents; will save businesses and industries along the corridor hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 30 years; and will create more jobs for those living in the areas served. That’s a higher public good, he says, than rejecting the project because a handful of residents are upset it diminishes their personal property.

Writ large, he’s right.

But that doesn’t mean the state cannot also argue for fair treatment of property values; for a respectful process that listens to residents, hears their concerns and answers them in a point-by-point manner; and perhaps even argues for a common defense fund to help affected property owners recoup in cash payments the diminished value of their property.

What Shumlin’s cool logic doesn’t adequately factor is that the public good for thousands of Vermonters comes at the expense of a very few property owners under whose land the pipeline travels.

The protestors, in frustration, are striking out at many things they perceive as injustices and fears — from property loss, to safety concerns, to aesthetics — but if the state could provide a process by which the affected land owners saw a fairer return for those who are sacrificing the most, perhaps the rancor would diminish.

Passing that task off to the Public Service Board, while leaving his administration out of the mix, isn’t the message Addison County residents were hoping to hear and only contributes to the mess within the weeds.

**********

On the state’s role in  funding education, the problem is complex, the governor says, but not complicated. The state currently faces a declining student population with fixed school costs that are compounded by a system heavy on labor (teachers) with health care costs that are triple inflation. The long-term answer is to consolidate so fewer teachers and administrators are paid to teach a declining number of students.

That’s common sense. Particularly when Vermonters understand that the state teacher-pupil ratio is the lowest in the nation at 9.4-1, which the national average is 16-1.

That’s the issue. How the state finances education is a distraction, Shumlin says, because the state constitution (as confirmed in Brigham v. State) insists all students have equal access to educational opportunity. No better funding law has been suggested, Shumlin maintains, and until it is the state must deal with the current funding model and focus on running a more cost-efficient system. Case closed.

Shumlin’s message is clear: What we have today isn’t making the grade, he says, and the worst thing we could do is refuse to try to do better by staying the same course.

The swamp he skirts is filled with the vestiges of local control, property tax fairness and the uncertainty that the proposed changes will lead to better student outcomes.

************

Ditto on health care reform. Shumlin’s operating premise is this: If we had kept the status quo, health care costs would have consumed 40 percent of a Vermonters’ household income by 2020. Such growth was not sustainable, so the system had to change.

Case dismissed; details pending.

Vermont Health Connect is the first step in the reform initiatives and moves toward a single-payer system that change the system from a fee-for-service based on quantity of treatments to a system based on the quality of care. It is a major overhaul of the health care system.

Neither the governor nor the Green Mountain Care board know all the details, or how it will work out in the end, but at the same time they are confident it will be better than leaving things as they were: headed for certain collapse. At least now, the governor says, we have the opportunity to get it right and set the state on a more secure path to prosperity.

That’s bold optimism mixed with a saucy, practical approach to problem solving that starts by bringing all issues down to commonsense realities — and then letting others deal with the unintended consequences that inevitably follow changes that are so fundamentally disruptive.

It is an effective way to push for change on the big ideas. Whether it also produces effective outcomes will be the governor’s legacy.

Angelo S. Lynn

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