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Douglas stresses environment and Internet

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January 8, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MONTPELIER — Local lawmakers on Thursday praised Gov. James Douglas’ 2007 agenda calling for Vermont to become a national leader in environmental and telecommunications technology, but stressed they now want to see more details on how the proposals will be funded.

Douglas, a Middlebury Republican beginning his third term in office, outlined his priorities during an inaugural address that stressed the need for bipartisan cooperation in dealing with a litany of issues, including affordable housing development, property tax reform and improving education opportunities.

“Vermonters aren’t interested in partisan intrigue — they are interested in results,” Douglas said to a large crowd dominated by Democratic lawmakers, who secured even larger majorities in both the House and Senate this past November.

Douglas reiterated his message of the past two years that Vermont must make itself more affordable and desirable to its diminishing youth population, and proposed a new path to achieve that objective: Making the state a pioneer in environmental and telecommunications technology.

To that end, Douglas outlined what he called his “Vermont Way Forward” agenda, which he defined as a “four-part strategy of environmental leadership, job creation, technological advancement and innovative education — a strategy that will allow Vermont the opportunity to complete an economic transformation that no state has achieved, but all will envy.”

Specifically, the plan calls for:

• Making it easier for Vermonters and Vermont businesses to invest in, and develop, alternative energy fuels and products that use them. Douglas proposed a 1 percent reduction in the tax on fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles to “reward Vermonters for making environmentally friendly choices.” He also asked that lawmakers support a tax rate reduction on bio-diesel, and tax incentives “that will make bio-fuels as affordable as regular home heating oil.” To set the example, Douglas advocated that state agencies purchase biodiesel and bio-fuels to run and heat its vehicles and buildings.

• Developing an aggressive job creation strategy that will retain existing employers, retrain current employees and work to recruit firms that specialize in the growing field of environmental engineering and the development of related products and services.

“Environmental engineering is Vermont’s next captive industry and we have the foundation from which the sector can flourish,” Douglas said.

• Transforming Vermont into the nation’s first “e-state” by dramatically improving cellular coverage and broadband Internet access.

“Broadband Internet and wireless cellular are no longer mere conveniences afforded to urbanites or the well-heeled; they are a fundamental part of modern life for all Vermonters, as essential as electricity and good roads,” Douglas said. “This is the technological foundation of the Vermont Way Forward.”

The governor said the state should back $40 million in bonding to achieve its e-state goals by the year 2010. That $40 million would leverage an additional $200 million in private investment, according to Douglas.

“Whether it means a construction worker can receive a business call at a remote job site, a bed and breakfast can offer guests wireless cellular and broadband, a feed store can order new inventory online or a small mail-order business can cut calling costs, our ‘e-state’ strategy establishes the platform for success across all sectors of the economy,” Douglas said.

• Creating the “Robert T. Stafford Schools for Math, Science and Technology.” These regional schools for high school students “will go beyond the scope of today’s technical education and emphasize the skills needed for the next wave of scientific advancements,” according to Douglas. 

Local lawmakers were generally pleased with the tone and priorities that Douglas enumerated in his speech.

“I’m pleased that on a broad level, the language was different this year,” said Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury. “I think there was a lot more use of the word ‘we’ in the speech and a lot less use of the words ‘I,’ and ‘me,’ and ‘my administration,’” Maier said. “He is apparently willing to work very collaboratively with the Legislature to produce some good measures for Vermonters.

“I think the agenda that he laid out… is closely aligned with what the Democrats are talking about,” he added.

But as a member of the House Committee on Health Care, Maier said he was disappointed that Douglas did not encourage the Legislature to make more strides in helping the uninsured. Douglas on Thursday simply asked lawmakers to implement provisions of the state’s Catamount Health plan.

“If you listen to the language, it sounds like he’s done with health care reform,” Maier said. “If that’s the case, I’m concerned about that. There are a lot of people out there still having some trouble holding on to their insurance and getting the health care they need.”

Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, agreed.

He said that while broadband Internet services and cell phone coverage is important, they should not overshadow the basic health care and housing needs of low-income Vermonters. Rather than advocating for universal cell phone coverage, the governor should have stressed universal health care coverage, according to Fisher.

“We have employers and employees all over the state struggling to pay their premiums,” Fisher said. “We need to do far more than implementing Catamount.”

Health care aside, Fisher was pleased with other items on Douglas’ to-do list.

“I was happy to hear his focus on renewables and alternative fuels,” Fisher said. “It’s very important that he’s come around to that. We need to do everything we can to be a model for reducing greenhouse gases.”

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, will play a significant role in determining how Douglas’ agenda will flow through the Legislature this biennium. Ayer is Senate majority whip and is currently a member of the Finance and Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committees, panels that will need to weigh in on the governor’s environmental and money-related priorities.

“The one thing that really did resonate with me was putting state money into broadband and high-speed communication,” Ayer said. “Otherwise, it’s just not going to happen, because there is no money there for private enterprise. I don’t know the details, but if we are going to invest $40 million in something, I think that’s where we need to go.”

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, has long promoted the extension of broadband and cell phone coverage to Addison County communities. For that reason, he was very pleased to hear Douglas champion the cause for better telecommunication services.

“In a sense, it’s thrilling to hear him talk about $40 million (in state funding for the e-state initiatives),” Jewett said. “You wouldn’t know that in past sessions we had to fight for $100,000 for our broadband grant program.”

That said, Jewett acknowledged that $40 million would be a sizable investment for a state like Vermont.

“$40 million is virtually what we spend on the state’s capital bill right now,” Jewett said. “That’s a whole lot of money in our system.”

Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, said she noticed some contradictions in Douglas’ spending priorities. She said that the governor appeared to be asking for education spending limits on the one hand, while encouraging new investment in schools (the Stafford initiative) on the other hand.

“What he’s saying in one place is that we have to cut property taxes, but in the next sentence or two, he is increasing the cost of what we’re doing,” Nuovo said.

This was the first inaugural address that new Rep. Kitty Oxholm, R-Vergennes, had ever seen in person.

It didn’t disappoint, as Oxholm said Douglas’ 2007 priorities mirror her own, particularly on the subjects of upgrading technology, creating new jobs and reducing the property tax burden.

Oxholm, the former mayor of Vergennes, said Douglas’ speech neatly followed the theme of “building a bridge into the future. I was very pleased with what I heard.”

Also taking in his first inaugural speech was newly elected Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven. He said he was pleased to hear Douglas put an emphasis on information technology.

“The whole notion of capitalizing on the broadband we already have and being able to expand that is interesting,” Bray said.

He believes Vermont will be up to the task in achieving Douglas’ e-state objective.

“It seems to me that one advantage we have as a small state is we can move faster and more nimbly to do things,” he said. “I don’t know all the implications — like how do we afford it — but it seems like a good idea, and I look forward to see the details on how we do this.”

Bray also said he appreciated Douglas’ conciliatory tone.

“I think it’s a great start to the session,” Bray said.

Newly elected Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, praised Douglas for “setting a high bar” for the 2007 session.

“In general, I think it was a great speech,” he said.

But Stevens, a farmer, said he noticed one major gap in the governor’s agenda.

“The one piece that was missing was the word ‘agriculture,’” Stevens said. “I didn’t hear it, except in the production of bio-fuels. I don’t know that raising hay for energy is the salvation for Vermont’s farmers, but it can be part of the mix. If you want to have agriculture in 100 years, you have to talk about it now. Why we’re not talking about it is a little frustrating.”

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