Politics of $1 million in aid
Last week, area and state legislators sent a letter to Gov. James Douglas recommending that the state set aside up to $1 million of the $8.67 million federal economic stimulus money to help Addison County businesses affected by the closing of the Champlain Bridge. The initiative was spearheaded by Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, and House Speaker Hap Smith, D-Morristown, and though it had the support of most Addison County legislators, the proposal was laden with political overtones.Those overtones were charged by several factors: New York Gov. David Patterson had pledged $2.93 million in stimulus funds to help businesses on the New York side of the bridge; area legislators had asked the governor to come up with similar aid in previous conversations but had gotten nowhere; Sen. Peter Shumlin, who announced the initiative at a press conference surrounded by area legislators the next day, is a candidate for governor; and Addison County is the governor’s home turf. Politics aside, however, the proposal must be judged on its merit. And in this case, the merit is obvious. “While the state itself is dealing with the impact of the economic recession, there are funds available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s (ARRA) State Stabilization Fund Program,” the letter states. “Without economic relief, small businesses and farms will be forced to close and more Vermonters will join the ranks of the unemployed.”The simple question is whether the state’s use of these funds to prevent the potential loss of jobs is worth the expenditure. The governor’s response was, surprisingly, less than clear. While the governor called the proposal “reasonable, and not inconsistent with my belief that this money should be allocated for economic development purposes,” he also stressed that the money should be distributed within the context of a broader economic development plan, including several specific statewide measures that were cut by the Legislature last session.When asked if the governor would support the aid to county businesses if the Legislature didn’t go along with the governor’s proposal on how to spend the rest of the $8.67 million, spokesperson Dennise Casey countered, “Any responsible legislator who cares about the economic strength of our state will not let it come to that.” When pressed on the point, Casey reiterated that the governor “would like to be sure that any ‘aid’ package proposed is not specific to any one challenge or county ... He has taken this position for two very important reasons: First, we should not set a precedent, especially if it is politically motivated, that we are not prepared to make good on in all other cases … And secondly, our entire state is in the midst of one of the deepest and most difficult recessions in a generation and we need to invest in all corners of our state with initiatives and proposals that will support all sectors of our economy.”While the governor’s point is sound, it ignores the economic hardship caused by the bridge’s closure. And the governor’s tepid support of the current initiative defies his previous rejection of such funds when area legislators had asked for assistance. “We didn’t get anywhere,” Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, said of previous requests for economic aid. “I would have expected the administration to come up with something before this.”Even now the governor seems to be leveraging his support of the $1 million proposal to get approval of his other initiatives. Shumlin and Smith, meanwhile, said they intend to review the governor’s plan once the Legislature opens its session in January, but hope to make the aid to Addison County a priority.“The people of Addison County need bipartisan leadership from the (House) speaker, the governor and myself in response to a crisis in which they are the innocent victims,” Shumlin said. “Our job is to get the money to Addison County as soon as we can. The rest of the debate will happen during the course of the legislative session.”As this micro-issue comes to a vote in early January, it’s also illustrative of how Shumlin can use his position as Senate Pro Temp to push issues and raise his profile among voters. In a five-way primary for governor, such name-recognition is priceless.