Editorial: ‘Vermont Strong’ a fitting tribute

In Gov. Peter Shumlin’s first state-of-the-state speech to lawmakers last Thursday he was as good a salesman pitching the “Vermont Strong” message, complete with license plates to help those still in need, as he was ring-master while directing the recovery effort after Tropical Storm Irene. As well he should be. Being the state’s leader not only means coming up with novel and effective ideas, but also being able to bring those ideas to completion.
In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, the state performed exceedingly well. From private contractors to state workers, volunteers to local officials, Vermont National Guard members to local police, the over-arching story was that everyone was willing to help rebuild as quickly as possible.
The result was stunning. In less than 10 days, hundreds of miles of roads and dozens of major bridges had been resurrected and made passable, and within a few weeks most were repaved and handling traffic for the state’s fall foliage season. While some of the hardest hit roads took longer — Route 4 from Rutland to Killington and on over to Woodstock took almost three weeks to repave, and Route 73 over Brandon Gap to Rochester was a few weeks later — the vast majority of the state’s roads and bridges were repaired in a private-public partnership that seemed to literally move mountains, completing road and highway repairs for 35 cents on the dollar.
That’s not just because Vermonters came together in a crisis to help one another, it’s also because our state leaders set aside bureaucratic turf battles, eliminated unnecessary red tape, and worked together to make the repairs as cost effective as they could be. That’s not only smart, it’s recognizing how things had worked in the past and figuring out how to make them work better in an emergency.
Throughout the immediate aftermath of the storm, the governor’s boundless energy and optimism that the state would emerge stronger than ever was on display, matched only by his compassion for those Vermonters who had lost so much. He was chief cheerleader, as many noted, but he was also master of ceremonies — conducting the show from on high, as well as with his boots on the ground visiting Vermonters in the towns most devastated.
It was most fitting that a speech reflecting the well-being of our state would sum it up as “Vermont Strong.” with all the hyperbole tied to Tropical Storm Irene that it so rightly deserves. The stories of a resilient state deserve to be recognized and praised.
But Vermonters would have missed a lot in that speech if they took it to be little more than boasting of a job well done in the aftermath of disaster, as some critics and bloggers have done.
What Shumlin did in the speech was use Irene as the barometer of what’s possible. In that context, he exhorted legislators and all Vermonters “to apply that same courage, strength and ingenuity to our most pressing need: growing jobs and prosperity for all Vermonters… Having witnessed what Vermont can do together, I have never been more optimistic about our ability to keep getting tough things done to help us grow jobs in 2012.”
Laying out other initiatives he will tackle in the upcoming year, he again pledged to:
• Connect “every corner of Vermont to high speed Internet and vastly improved cell service by the end of 2013.”
• “Arrest the skyrocketing cost of health care that is hurting job growth and picking the pockets of our struggling middle class,” citing the ongoing work of the Green Mountain Health Board, which is working on implementing the landmark health care reform bill passed last year.
• Make Vermont a leader in education by, among other things, proposing “significant state investments in higher education and dual enrollment, all aimed at making Vermont students even more competitive and creating opportunities for employers to recruit the employees they are now seeking.”
• Promote alternative energy and grow jobs by “harnessing the wind, sun, water, forests and fields to produce community-generated renewable power.” He has set a goal of generating 75 percent of renewable electricity in Vermont within 20 years.
• Fuel “the renaissance in locally grown Vermont food,” thus creating more jobs in agriculture and reversing the decline of the family farm.
He also made a new pledge to fight the war on “recidivism, and stemming the epidemic abuse of prescription drugs, particularly opiates, that is driving crime and destroying the lives of too many of our neighbors.”
The details to those initiatives and others, as is always the case, will come out in the governor’s budget address this coming Thursday.
Until then, resist the political cynicism of the era that keeps us from celebrating our success stories, and tip your hat to your fellow Vermonters for responding to adversity with integrity, compassion, hard work, resolve and courage. We acted superbly in those hours of need, and that, in part, reflects on our collective character.
But don’t dwell on it. As the governor said in his closing, it’s time to get back to work.
Angelo S. Lynn

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