Shumlin outlines campaign priorities
MIDDLEBURY — Gov. Peter Shumlin cited adding more jobs, property tax reform, affordable health care and cleaning up Lake Champlain as his top priorities for the next biennium should he be elected to a third consecutive two-year term on Nov. 4.
Shumlin, a Putney Democrat, faces opposition from Republican Scott Milne and several independent and third-party candidates this year. He took some time out last week during his travels for a phone interview with the Addison Independent.
Shumlin does not support the notion of requiring schools to consolidate or dramatically alter their governance structures. Instead, his strategy during the coming months will be to give communities what he believes are sobering statistics showing that Vermont public schools will need to make some substantial structural changes if they are to remain financially viable. To that end, Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe — in partnership with the Vermont School Boards Association — will continue to meet with municipal and school officials throughout the state to present information and candid feedback.
“We have 30,000 fewer students than we had just a few decades ago and we have a spending problem,” Shumlin said. “But our expenses are higher now with 30,000 fewer students.
“I personally have tremendous confidence in the creativity and wisdom of Vermonters, and my feeling is that what no governor has done yet is to give those communities the data they deserve so that they can make good decisions about the future,” he added.
Holcombe, Shumlin said, will be giving community officials “data they have never had before.” That data, Shumlin said, will show what towns are currently spending and what their student counts and property taxes are likely to look like in five to 10 years.
“We want to partner (with communities) to help give them the resources to make decisions that will avoid the cost trajectory they are on right now that will kill property taxpayers,” Shumlin said. “I think we need to combine that with incentives that will back up that partnership.”
For example, Shumlin plans to recommend a state Capital Bill this year that will give first priority to communities that are “making infrastructure consolidation decisions and need resources from the state to make (the decisions) work.”
That said, he said Addison Northeast Supervisory Union taxpayers should not anticipate state aid for the $32.6 million Mount Abraham Union High School bond proposal they will decide on this Nov. 4.
“I wouldn’t base my (Nov. 4) vote on any promises from Montpelier for money that just doesn’t exist,” Shumlin said, noting the state has a total of roughly $60 million each year to spend on capital projects statewide.
“We are at a point now where we can literally map the state and tell you where we are going to continue to lose students and where we are going to gain,” Shumlin said. “Unfortunately, we are going to continue to lose them in rural communities and see gains in population in the urban communities.”
Shumlin is aware of the growing hue and cry statewide about the property tax burden that many Vermonters face. But he said the state, at least in the short term, should focus on improving the state’s current education finance law (Act 68), rather than scrapping it for some new system that has yet to be defined or vetted.
“I would caution voters to be wary of promises for a new system that no one has a plan for,” Shumlin said, noting the approaching General Election. “As frustrated as we are with school spending and property taxes, when you don’t have anyone walking around with a new funding formula that’s better than the one we have, be suspicious of promises of things that don’t exist.
“I think that if there were a simple solution to this, someone would have figured it out by now,” he added.
LAKE CHAMPLAIN CLEANUP
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is demanding the state take more aggressive steps to clean up Lake Champlain, particularly as it relates to phosphorous runoff. State officials are concerned about the cost of such an endeavor and how much assistance may be forthcoming from the feds. Shumlin believes Vermont has an ally in the EPA.
“I see the EPA as a partner, not as our enemy, in cleaning up the lake,” he said. “We have submitted a plan, and (the EPA) is considering that plan and how to strengthen it.”
Shumlin promised Vermont environmental officials will have the data to identify the most egregious polluters of the lake and focus on how to prevent that pollution. Funding for the cleanup, he said, is likely to come from the federal government, private businesses and Vermonters.
And when it comes to assessing cleanup costs, Vermont faces a very big challenge, according to Shumlin. That’s because there are very few residents per square mile living in the vicinity of the lake who might be asked to chip in.
Shumlin is aware of the growing debate surrounding the proliferation of solar and wind projects around the state. Some have complained that these projects are becoming an aesthetic blight on Vermont’s rural landscape. While the governor said he is happy to see that issue debated, he is committed to the state’s transition to green energy.
“What we are doing is not only good for Vermonters’ pocketbooks, it’s good for the planet and the right thing for job creation,” Shumlin said.
Asked to name his biggest disappointments since taking office four years ago, Shumlin cited the failed roll-out of the Vermont Health Connect website. That site — which allows people to register for insurance through a federally mandated health care exchange — has been temporarily deactivated amid technical problems.
He said he is also disappointed that Vermont is part of a “lopsided” economic recovery in which he believes the most affluent residents have been seeing “robust” income growth, the middle class have made little or no gains, and the poorest have seen their resources shrink.
“That is not a sustainable path to prosperity,” Shumlin said.
FUTURE IN OFFICE?
The governor at this point said he is just hoping for another two years and has not given much thought into how much total time he would like to spend as the state’s chief executive. He noted past governors have called it quits after an average of six to eight years, a number he believes is about right.
“I’m not a believer in the notion that the longer you serve, the more you get done,” Shumlin said. “Every time a governor makes a decision, you make somebody mad. There’s a reason governors don’t last as long as (federal representatives and senators).”
Gov. Shumlin recently also answered some questions from the St. Albans Messenger, the answers of which shine additional light on his stewardship of the state.
He told the Messenger that one important economic advantage Vermont has is its unrivaled quality of life — specifically citing Vermont’s great schools, strong communities and natural beauty.
“Vermont is also leading in a number of emerging economic areas, seizing opportunities to create jobs and expand opportunity,” he said. “On energy, Vermont is charting a renewable energy future that is attracting entrepreneurs, companies and jobs. In 2013 alone, Vermont created 1,000 solar jobs, the highest growth rate in America.
“When it comes to technology, Vermont is making a big name for itself despite its small size. Burlington, already home to many great technology companies, has been rated one of the top 10 emerging tech hubs in the country.
And he also said agriculture would continue to be a big part of Vermont’s economic picture, touting especially Vermont beer, cheese and other value-added products.
“The Vermont-made label is sought after and respected worldwide,” he said.
In addition to the above named aspects of Vermont, the Green Mountain State’s “great school system and accessible state government” make it a good place to do business, Shumlin said.
“Vermont’s small size is also a big advantage because we know each other, trust each other, and have better opportunities to collaborate in the public and private sector than many other states,” he said.
“Businesses large and small have access to all levels of state government in a way that is unheard of in other states,” he added. “I routinely travel around the state to visit with CEOs of Vermont businesses large and small and I hear about this advantage, as well as the high quality of our workforce.”
Read the Messenger’s full interview with Gov. Shumlin at addisonindependent.com.
Addison Independent reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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