Editorial: Much accomplished
The governor’s take on the session was enthusiastic optimism — as expected. And much of it is deserved.
Considering the damage to roads and bridges and the loss of business caused by Tropical Storm Irene last Aug. 28, and the tepid economy on top of a winter that starved ski resorts of predictable snow, it’s a wonder state residents weren’t asked to increase taxes to rebuild what was lost and replenish drained coffers.
Of the challenges Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration faced this session, balancing the budget without broad-based tax increases might have been the single biggest feat. The administration was helped by hefty sums from FEMA and the federal government. Still, the state’s overall $5 billion budget jumped 6 percent, though about 4 percent was due to TS Irene — a superior effort, by most accounts.
Not only did the budget pass, it passed by lopsided margins (25-3 in the Senate and 113-18 in the House) and without the threats of gubernatorial vetoes that Vermonters saw in the first decade of this century. Moreover, it passed by also fully funding pensions, rainy day funds and creating an innovative plan to allocate any budget surpluses: 50 percent to go toward the state’s education fund to provide property tax relief; 25 percent would go to the state’s rainy day fund; and 25 percent would be reserved to backfill anticipated cuts in federal assistance.
That, by itself, would suffice as a successful session for many past governors.
But this session accomplished a good deal more.
• Foremost among those accomplishments was moving forward with health care reform by approving plans for an insurance exchange to become law as of Jan. 1, 2014. The exchange, which requires businesses with 50 employees or less to join the state-operated insurance market, will theoretically lower the health care costs of a business’s employees compared to current private health insurance plans. The numbers looking ahead are still fuzzy, but the math of past years is plain: health care insurance rates have skyrocketed for the past decade. The governor is dead-on when he claims the cost of health care insurance is “killing small businesses” and noting that it is one of the state’s biggest challenges to tackle.
• The governor also signed a bill creating the department of education with its Secretary as a member of the governor’s and appointed by the governor. The change, which has been sought by governors of both parties for the past 20 years, puts the responsibility of educational outcomes on the governor’s shoulders, rather than on the more amorphous Board of Education as it has been for years.
It’s not a panacea for what ails the system, but it will bring the discussion of solutions into the statewide spotlight. Understandably, that makes many teachers and school administrators nervous because it threatens the status quo; but it can also spark improvements that are necessary if Vermont is to get more of its high school graduates to continue on to college and into careers with a livable wage.
It’s also the first step that will hopefully propel more education initiatives into the spotlight — all with the goal of making Vermont ‘the education state,’ a place where tomorrow’s business community can depend on a well-educated workforce.
• Revamping the state’s mental health care system: Tropical Storm Irene lent a helping hand to one of the more vexing issues of the past decade — what to do with the decrepit state hospital in Waterbury. Irene’s flood waters gave the administration the cover other governors didn’t have, and Shumlin’s team seized the opportunity by shutting down that 50-bed facility and relocating those beds to new facilities in Barre, Brattleboro and Rutland, with 90 percent of the cost covered by FEMA’s storm-related assistance.
• Upped the transportation budget: The state passed a $658 million transportation budget, of which more than $100 million was directly related to TS Irene repairs and largely covered by federal funds. More importantly, the state learned new lessons from Irene that will save millions of dollars in future projects: Simply put, closing roads when rebuilding bridges and severely damaged sections of roads saves tons of money compared to the old system of putting up a replacement bridges nearby and then and building a new one — all while being interrupted by daily traffic. Yes, it means drivers will be inconvenienced for a few weeks or months, but when it means not spending two or three times as much, the lesson learned is that drivers can be temporarily inconvenienced.
By putting those lessons in place, the state can start to whittle away at its decades-old backlog of projects.
• The creation of the Working Landscape Enterprise Fund of $1.2 million sparks the notion behind a renaissance in Vermont agriculture, as much as it does promote the reality. Either way, boosting the development of value-added farm products and farm diversity throughout the state is as important symbolically as it is economically. It is the future of farming and the state is playing an appropriate role: to spark private capital to get involved, then let private industry run with it.
• Passed a reapportionment bill with near unanimous support — an accomplishment not often matched by other legislatures.
• Passed a search-and-rescue bill that will mandate quick and immediate response by the state police and cooperation with civilian and municipal rescue organizations, in addition to forming a summer study committee to recommend a long-term solution.
There were failures, too. Chief among them was not increasing dual enrollment funding that would have helped roughly 600 more Vermont high school graduates pursue higher education, along with other measures in education that are needed to better prepare Vermont’s youth for tomorrow’s jobs. But that and other failures can each be taken up next year and pursued with equal vigor.
Until then, Vermonters would do well to reflect on this year’s accomplishments and the Legislature’s ability to make tough decisions to do the necessary work of government. Comparatively, while the last couple of weeks of the session can get messy, this little state of ours is heads above any other state in terms of our priorities and what we accomplish for the common good.
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