MIDDLEBURY — To say that Steve Howard entered politics at an early age would be an understatement.
The 38-year-old Rutland City Democrat was 13 years old in 1984 when he covertly campaigned for then-gubernatorial candidate Madeleine Kunin. He recalled that he had to stump slyly so as not to incur the wrath of his politically conservative dad in Rutland County — which remains one of the reddest regions in a primarily blue state.
Howard ended up collecting signatures and going door-to-door for Kunin, who would go on to win her first of three terms as Vermont’s chief executive.
“It was a moment where I felt inspired,” said Howard, who has family ties to the Middlebury area.
And it inspired him to enter the political arena himself, beginning with an initial six-year stint in the Vermont House beginning in 1993. He is currently rounding out a second six-year run in the House that he began in 2004. He also served as chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party during the mid-1990s.
Now Howard has his sights set on the lieutenant governor’s office, where he hopes to use his legislative background and his professional expertise in grassroots organizing to revise Vermont’s tax laws in ways that he believes will help encourage business growth while more equitably financing the state’s public education system. Howard also vows to be a “full-time” lieutenant governor who will promote a “Medicare-for-all” system to bring about health care reform; promote more early-childhood education programs as a way of avoiding more expensive corrective programs later in kids’ lives; and do more to promote Vermont as a tourist destination and place in which to do business.
Howard will face New Haven Democrat and fellow Rep. Chris Bray in the Aug. 24 primary. Two Republican contenders for the post — Mark Snelling of Starksboro and Phil Scott of Berlin — will also square off on Aug. 24. The primary election winners will compete in the general election Nov. 2.
In an interview with the Independent last week Howard acknowledged that the next lieutenant governor will have to help lead the state out of the current recession and onto a path of sustainable budgets and services. Howard — who has served eight of his 12 years in the House as a member of the Ways and Means Committee — believes the state must do two main things to get on a path to fiscal sustainability: Rein in the costs of health care and corrections; and fund public education based on a person’s ability to pay (income tax) rather than mainly through property taxes.
“I think it’s all about making the economy in Vermont work for all Vermonters,” he said. “I think we have to have a government that is focused on helping the middle class. My view is that the (Douglas) administration has been solely focused on the ‘least-worst problem,’ which is that ‘wealthy people in Vermont are not wealthy enough,’ according to them.”
Howard believes middle-class Vermonters should be given more relief, and said the state could accomplish that, in part, by adopting an income-based education finance system. It’s a strategy he has supported since the early 1990s, when then-Rep. John Freidin, D-New Haven, proposed such a bill. The state ultimately adopted Acts 60 and 68, which provide some relief to lower wage earners when calculating education property taxes. He called Acts 60 and 68 “a compromise,” but said it’s now time to revisit the income tax for education.
“That’s one area where the middle class, from $85,000 to $150,000, is paying the highest property taxes in the state, in terms of household income,” Howard said.
Barring a legislative willingness to got to an income-based education finance system, Howard said he call for increasing the household income threshold (now at $97,000) at which families can qualify for subsidies under Act 68. The Douglas administration has warned that the Act 68 threshold should be lowered because more than half of the state’s households already qualify, which in turn has stressed Vermont’s education fund.
Howard does not believe the Vermont education system is spending too much, nor does he think state should force schools to merge or consolidate their boards or administrations in the wake of declining enrollment and increasing costs. He said the 2010 Legislature took the right approach in encouraging schools to voluntarily merge resources.
Another stressor on many Vermonters’ pocketbooks, according to Howard, is the escalating costs of health care. With that in mind, Howard said he will advocate for a “Medicare-for-all” health care system that he believes would cut administrative costs and encourage people to visit the doctor before they require more expensive hospital services. The state could further reduce health care costs by crafting and approving a single (global) budget for its hospitals, rather than preparing them individually.
Having lower health care costs, Howard theorized, would give entrepreneurs more incentive to create jobs in Vermont, where the quality of life is already a powerful calling card. And Howard — a community organizer and public relations consultant by trade — vowed to market the state in a more aggressive manner than he said it is being marketed now. He claimed the current administration has publicly emphasized roadblocks to entrepreneurship in Vermont, which Howard said has created bad PR and tamped down investment in the Green Mountain State.
But Howard has, during the course of his job, traveled to other states — such as New Hampshire — where he said some officials have spoken in envious terms about Vermont’s qualities and ability to attract businesses.
“I’ve learned that the grass always looks greener from where you’re standing, but every state has challenges,” Howard said.
Vermont could enhance its business prospects by bringing freight and passenger rail services to the western part of the state, through Addison County, according to Howard.
“I would like to be able to take a train from Albany (N.Y.) to Essex,” Howard said.
If elected, Howard said he would work with the state’s congressional delegation to improve milk prices for dairy farmers. He added he would support state policies to improve conditions for agricultural operations to diversify and compete on a national scale.
Farmers, according to Howard, could benefit from growing renewable energy crops such as switch grass. He promised to back “green” energy initiatives while calling for the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in 2012.
Howard knows that he will need the support of a lot of people and politicians in order to pursue his agenda. But he believes he has the background to do it.
“I think I bring a broad perspective of how the State House works and how state government works,” Howard said, “but I also want to roll up my sleeves and really make government function by organizing Vermonters. I want to transform this office — that I think most Vermonters feel is kind of a sleepy, ceremonial office — into a center of grassroots action, where Vermonters learn how they can be most effective in participating in their government and moving it into the direction they want it to go.”
John Flowers is at [email protected]