NEW HAVEN — New Haven Republican Harvey Smith is seeking to reclaim the Addison-5 House seat he held for eight years prior to being unseated in 2006.
Smith, 65, was first elected to the House in November of 1998 and served through 2006. He was defeated that year by Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, who last month lost a close contest to Steve Howard of Rutland County in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.
Smith, a lifelong farmer who served all of his previous legislative career on the House Agriculture Committee, will face a familiar opponent this November — Weybridge Democrat Spence Putnam. Smith beat Putnam in the 2000 race for the Addison-5 House seat, which represents the towns of Bridport, New Haven and Weybridge.
Many of the campaign issues of 2000 continue to resonate a decade later, according to Smith, including education finance reform, spiraling health-care expenses and long-term energy policy.
“There was a lot of unfinished business I wanted to complete,” Smith said of his decision to run this year. “I think I have the skills and the perseverance to find answers (for the state’s problems).”
Smith has continued to immerse himself in agricultural issues during the past four years outside of the Legislature. He served two years as state executive director of the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA), which dispenses financial assistance to ag operations. It was during this time that Smith said he developed a better understanding of farmers’ financial and logistical needs.
“It was quite an eye-opener,” Smith said, adding the FSA not only helps preserve existing farms, but also helped get some new ones started.
After the two-year stint with the FSA, Smith immersed himself in “Smith Family Beef,” a grass-fed beef business he co-owns with his granddaughter AnnaJo. The beef cows are raised on the Smith Farm off Lime Kiln Road.
Smith said the business includes a herd of around 40 head and currently contracts with individuals for whole, half animal or single-packaged items.
“We’ve got a pretty good client list right now,” Smith said. “We are small right now, but we want to grow with our customer base.”
It is a formula that is working for Smith and other farmers who have had to either scale back, or eliminate, their dairy operations in order to make a living in agriculture. And Smith is encouraged by the number and growth of more diverse and value-added farm enterprises.
“Value-added agriculture seems to be growing quite healthy,” said Smith, a member of the Addison County Farm Bureau, Regional Planning Commission and Economic Development Corp. boards.
On the other hand, Smith said the conventional dairy sector “is in the worst financial condition that I have seen it in my lifetime.”
Smith believes the federal government will have to step in with a program to stabilize milk prices or more dairies will go out of business.
Improving business conditions is one of the things Smith is emphasizing most in his campaign.
“I think that lowering taxes — both for businesses and families across the board — is a good thing,” Smith said. “If we could revitalize the economic engine that drives the state, that would generate the taxes we need to give us the ability to reduce tax rates over time.”
Increasing the tax base would mean attracting more businesses to the state, Smith said, and he believes that means taking steps to draw entrepreneurs. Smith, like other candidates this year, is suggesting that Vermont streamline its permitting process to make it easier for businesses to settle in the Green Mountain State.
But beyond that, Smith said the state should do more to encourage towns to establish “pre-designated business areas” in which enterprises could quickly and easily locate, and he wants Vermont to create an ombudsman position to help entrepreneurs navigate the permitting process.
“Right now, someone can think they’ve gone through the permitting process and find out they’ve got another permit to get,” Smith said. “You need some assistance to go through the process.”
Smith acknowledged that state government, like the business sector, is also facing some severe economic challenges. Incoming lawmakers will face the task of having to mop up an estimated $112 million state budget shortfall.
“I don’t know how we make things a lot leaner than they already are,” Smith said. But he said legislators will need to look at programs and make the painful choice of eliminating those not deemed “essential.”
He does not believe the state should balance its books by tapping into its rainy day fund or increasing taxes.
“The solution is out there; we just have to listen and hear what people have to say,” Smith said.
Vermont, in addition to sorting out its finances, will have to confront its energy future, according to Smith. He believes Vermont should use Vermont Yankee nuclear power as a bridge to a more diverse portfolio of renewable energy sources provided VY “can met all the safety standards to allow us through this transition period.”
Many Addison County homes and businesses, according to Smith, are endowed with ample sun exposure from the south to harness ample solar energy.
“We have some great opportunities, especially when the costs of solar comes down,” Smith said.
Health-care reform continues to be a hot-button topic in the Statehouse. Smith said he does not favor a universal health care system.
“I don’t believe the government is the best way to deal with health-care programs,” Smith said.
He will instead urge for changes in the way health insurance is provided through the private sector.
“I still think competition is a good way to lower health-care costs,” he said.
Smith would also like to see insurance companies have the ability to pool clients across state lines, a measure he said could reduce premium costs.
“I see a lot of opportunities we can work on, and the best way to work on them is to be (in the Legislature),” Smith said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]