Shumlin looks to use momentum from Irene

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin on Jan. 5 exhorted lawmakers to attack such issues as health care reform, drug abuse and improving public education with the same zeal and creativity that Vermonters showed in rebuilding the state’s roads and bridges following Tropical Storm Irene last August.
And Addison County lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were up for the challenge.
Read Gov. Shumlin’s full state of the state address
“I thought he was upbeat, informative and he talked about how Vermont was strong, even after Irene,” Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury and the county’s most tenured lawmaker, said of Shumlin’s state-of-the-state address. “He said that Vermonters are entrepreneurial and know how to get things done, and he is going to help them do it.”
Indeed, “Vermont Strong” was a theme and rallying cry that Shumlin used repeatedly in his speech, during which he credited federal, state and local officials and citizens for seizing the initiative to revive the state’s infrastructure in the weeks following Irene. He said his administration — at the request of workers on the ground — lifted limits in the hauling of heavy equipment on roads and allowed workers to retrieve some of the rock and gravel that had washed into streams for use in reconstruction.
“In this public/private partnership, with winter looming, we did it right, with Vermont ingenuity, fiscal prudence and common sense,” Shumlin said. “We rebuilt, for 35 cents on the dollar, bringing total estimated damage down to $250 million for state roads and infrastructure, and $140 million for town roads.”
Thanks to federal aid, Vermont’s general fund tab for Irene will be less than $30 million, Shumlin said, far less than had been feared.
Vermont can learn from the lesson of Irene, the governor said. Faced with an emergency, he said the state modified procedures, expedited access to stone and gravel, and removed dangerous debris from brooks and streams as “engineers worked together with environmental experts to get the job done.”
“Projects that pre-Irene would have taken years got done in months; environmental quality was preserved; taxpayer dollars were saved; and roads and bridges were built to withstand the assault of extreme weather that looms even larger in our future,” Shumlin said.
“If after Irene we can rebuild over 500 miles of damaged roads and 34 bridges in four months for a fraction of normal cost, with dwindling federal funds in our future, we must apply those lessons to maintaining and rebuilding Vermont’s aging transportation infrastructure from this point forward,” Shumlin added. “We will build faster, smarter, and more economically.”
It is a can-do spirit that Shumlin believes should be applied to state’s other challenges that he said include growing jobs, reforming the health care system, expanding broadband Internet access and cell service, strengthening agriculture, and boosting Vermont’s renewable energy portfolio. In a speech short on specifics (which he said would be clarified in his budget message on Jan. 12), Shumlin did say he wants the state to obtain 75 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within 20 years.
“If we can turn the lights back on in just three days for over 70,000 utility customers, thanks to the heroic work of our utilities, we can create jobs by harnessing the sun, wind, water, forests and fields to produce community-generated renewable power,” Shumlin said.
The governor also pointed to signs indicating the state’s economy is on the rebound. He cited 10 major companies throughout the state — including Goodrich Corp. in Vergennes — that are currently hiring and/or developing new products that could soon create new jobs.
“My administration and I commit ourselves every day to attracting entrepreneurs and growing jobs, one job at a time, as we slowly but surely grow our way out of the most painful recession in our nation’s history,” Shumlin said.
It is growth that Shumlin said should not be hampered by new tax levies. He announced he would not support an increase in any of the state’s broad-based taxes (income, sales, rooms and meals).
“To me, the most important part of the speech was his emphasis on job creation and economic development,” said Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury. “Those jobs are not going to come our way, we are going to have to work for them.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, serves on the House Transportation Committee, which has been monitoring the Irene recovery efforts and will need to respond to Shumlin’s challenge to strengthen the state’s infrastructure.
Lanpher said she is eager to build on the momentum of the Irene recovery efforts. She noted the Vermont Agency of Transportation has asked for 21 new hires in this year’s budget adjustment bill.
“I am thrilled at continuing the work that the first responders have done in rebuilding this state after Irene,” Lanpher said. “The Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Agency of Natural Resources are so proud of what they got done in that challenge.”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, was also pleased with what she heard from Shumlin.
“It was kind of like a pep rally,” she said of the tone of the speech. “We did a great job, and we’ve got a whole bunch of stuff to do ahead of us.”
Ayer said she was particularly pleased the governor continued to emphasize expansion of cell phone coverage in the state.
“I you go to places without coverage, it is very difficult to function,” Ayer said.
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, said he thought Shumlin set a good agenda for 2012.
“He is a good speaker, he pats people on the back well, he has a lot of platitudes and some good ideas,” Clark said.
The governor’s emphasis on “fiscal prudence” and “common sense” in dealing with the state’s challenges was particularly appealing to Clark.
“Common sense seems to have been missing a lot from the Statehouse,” Clark said.
Also resonating for Clark was Shumlin’s call for a quicker timeline for completing construction projects and for his stand against tax increases.
“If we can bypass things for an emergency (like Irene) and things worked so well… why can’t we take a look at this and make a systematic change,” he said.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, appreciated the tone of Shumlin’s speech and the recognition heaped on those who helped open the state back up to travel after Irene.
“It is nice to have those affirming opportunities,” Stevens said.
“Looking forward, it is always nice to look at adversity as an opportunity,” he added. “Even without Irene, we are in a transformational time. We are emerging for this recession, and have a chance to define ourselves.”
While Shumlin’s remarks drew a lot of kudos, there were also some criticisms.
For example, Stevens noted that not everyone was on board with the swift manner in which work crews were allowed to move gravel in flood-ravaged streams. Middlebury is a prime example of a community that drew a lot of criticism from neighbors and federal authorities after it moved swiftly to harness the Middlebury River when it spilled its banks during Irene.
“He’s got a lot of push-back on his response to the rivers,” Stevens said.
Shumlin, during an interview with the Addison Independent after his speech, addressed the criticism.
“We don’t claim we did everything right,” Shumlin said. “People forget that we had communities totally cut off from civilization. You couldn’t drive a car there or get water and food in. We made some on-the-fly decisions that we wouldn’t make again. But 98 percent of those decisions were spot-on and that’s why we’ve gotten where we have.”
Shumlin said his administration is open to recommendations on making some systematic changes in the environmental permitting process. He said Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz is already working on “some very pragmatic ideas to help get red tape and bureaucracy out of the way so we can get decisions out faster and more predictably.”
And Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, noted that while it is understandable that Shumlin will not push for tax increases in an election year, the administration will be seeking to boost a wide range of fees for government services.
“We are anticipating an extensive fee bill,” said Sharpe, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Sharpe also voiced concern about the Vermont’s declining commitment to state aid to education, a factor he said is forcing local taxpayers to either pick up a greater share of the expense or substantially cut services.
“I do not want to force communities to raise local taxes because we don’t have the ability to do the right thing at the state level,” Sharpe said.
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, applauded Shumlin for proposing to increase the state workforce to make advances in transportation and health care reform. Fisher chairs the House Health Care Committee.
“(The speech) was short on details, but I feel confident in the health care arena that the administration is working very hard on the details,” Fisher said. “We will get a much more detailed speech with the budget.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is House majority whip and will help reconcile the governor’s priorities with the House agenda.
He looks forward to hearing more details.
“I suspect the budget address is where the meat will be put on the bones,” Jewett said.
Jewett said legislative leaders want the House to vote out four major bills this month. Those bills will deal with redistricting, the future of the Vermont State Hospital, tax abatement, and the Budget Adjustment Act.
“We are already hard at work on the nuts-and-bolts levels.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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