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Eric Davis: Spaulding departure a quandry for Shumlin

Jeb Spaulding, who has been Gov. Shumlin’s secretary of administration since 2011, will leave the administration in January to become the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges. Spaulding’s appointment will benefit the state colleges, but it will present significant challenges for the governor.
Spaulding has a long public service career. He was elected to the Senate, from Washington County, in 1984 and served in that body for nearly 20 years. As a senator, Spaulding chaired the education and the appropriations committees. In 2002, Spaulding was elected to the first of four terms as state treasurer, before Shumlin appointed him as his key cabinet member.
Spaulding’s experience in Montpelier, plus his knowledge of state budget and education policy, are a strong background to be chancellor of the state colleges. He will allow the presidents of each of the colleges to run their own institutions, while serving as a visible and effective spokesperson for the state college system with the Legislature and the public.
One of Spaulding’s challenges will be obtaining the resources to make the state colleges more attractive and affordable alternatives for the many Vermont 18-year-olds who now decide to enroll in out-of-state higher education programs. Spaulding will also need to develop more mid-career programs for working Vermonters who want to upgrade their academic and technical credentials to be stronger candidates for the higher-level jobs that some Vermont employers report are increasingly difficult to fill.
The secretary of administration is the most important position in the governor’s cabinet. Its holder is the chief operating officer for state government, is responsible for developing and overseeing the state budget, and is the governor’s principal liaison with the Legislature, agency heads and commissioners all across state government.
The secretary must be seen to have the governor’s confidence, to always speak for the governor, and to be tough enough to take firm positions with legislators and other agency heads. Spaulding’s background as a senator and as treasurer gave him a skill set that was very suited to the requirements of the position.
Shumlin will need to appoint a new secretary of administration who will not face a steep learning curve. There are major management issues in the agency of human services, where Harry Chen is serving as interim secretary only until the end of December, and at Vermont Health Connect, that need to be resolved within the next few months.
The new secretary will be the point person for presenting the administration’s plans for financing a single-payer health care plan to the Legislature next year. That plan may face tough going, even among overwhelmingly Democratic lawmakers, especially if it is not accompanied by fully developed assumptions regarding benefit levels, deductibles and co-pays, provider payment schemes, economic effects on employers and individuals, and the administrative transition from the current system.
The sluggish recovery in Vermont, and the continued stagnation of middle-class incomes, might also mean the new secretary will have to confront another downgrade in the revenue projections underlying the state budget, just as the Legislature returns to Montpelier.
Shumlin has not given any indication of who he will ask to replace Spaulding. Perhaps he wants to wait until after the November election to address this issue.
There are two people in Montpelier who I believe would be strong candidates for secretary of administration. The first is Susan Bartlett, a former senator, and chair of the appropriations committee, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 2010 Democratic primary and is now a member of Shumlin’s staff. The second is the current Senate appropriations chair, Jane Kitchel, who also has previous executive branch experience, as secretary of human services in Howard Dean’s administration.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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