Editorial: Voters tell Shumlin to be bold, forthright, trustworthy

Vermont voters sent a message to Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday and it was anything but subtle. Voters don’t trust him.
And for good reason.
The governor’s signature initiative for the past four years has been his push for a single-payer health care system in Vermont. But the rollout of Vermont Health Connect was mismanaged, undermining the public’s confidence in the state’s ability to get it right with single-payer. Worse, however, was the governor’s decision to delay unveiling his plan outlining the cost of the proposed single payer system until after the election — a date that was obviously politically motivated, not to mention several months later than was initially mandated. The reasonable conclusion for voters is that the proposal will not deliver the savings the governor has been touting, and its $2 billion price tag will be a huge burden on taxpayers. Such doubts breed discontent and distrust.
High property taxes and little progress in putting a lid on school financing are other issues that have seen little progress during Shumlin’s four years in office, adding to the public disenchantment with the governor.
Those disappointments have been compounded by the governor’s eternal optimism and unwillingness to step back and reassess bold initiatives, which has, ironically, undermined public confidence. Particularly in this campaign, he has come across as a candidate on a mission, rather than as a thoughtful and considerate leader. He was portrayed  as an effective cheerleader, but not a careful and trustworthy manager of state affairs. That’s largely the fault of this year’s campaign, which played on the governor’s can-do personality, rather than tout his first four years of accomplishments.
Accomplishments aside, the closeness of the vote, 46.5 percent to 45 percent for Republican Scott Milne, was a shellacking that has shocked the administration. No one predicted such a close race. Indeed, it is hard to fathom considering Milne was outspent four to one, entered the campaign at the last minute and only then because no other Republican would run, had no real message or platform to embrace, and ran what has to be considered one of the worst campaigns for governor in recent memory. And, yet, he came so very close to beating a governor who only months ago seemed invincible.
How is that possible? Because the vote was not about supporting Mr. Milne. It was a vote against the governor. It’s also a vote against higher spending and not living within the state’s means. It’s a vote against proceeding full-speed ahead on single-payer without a transparent game plan. It’s punishing the governor for not getting a handle on school spending. And, for some within the fold, it’s punishing the governor for his support of the natural gas pipeline expansion into Addison County, for wind turbines in the Northeast Kingdom, or not moving fast enough to curb pollution in Lake Champlain.
What is the governor to do? Listen and re-evaluate his major initiatives. That does not necessarily mean to scuttle them, but the public wants to know that the governor is carefully considering all options and choosing ones that are best for the state, not for the governor’s legacy. That could mean doing what he has long said: to back off his push to a single payer system if the financing piece is too big a burden. He should reiterate that pledge publicly.
The governor will also need to rein in the liberals in the Legislature who press for more government services and spending, including those who have driven the single-payer initiative. He has been the restraining voice within his party on many occasions (arguing against any increase in broad-based taxes, for example), but he will have to do a better job defining priorities. That means saying “no” to constituencies and causes that he staunchly supports.
If Phil Scott’s overwhelming victory in the race for lieutenant governor means anything, it is that a large number of Vermonters prefer a less ambitious state agenda that lives within the state’s financial means. The governor, House Speaker Shap Smith and the entire Legislature would do well to take that message to heart.
That said, Vermonters elected Gov. Shumlin four years ago and re-elected him again yesterday because he has a vision of creating a more economically vibrant and sustainable state that attracts the jobs of tomorrow and is home to one of the best education systems in the country. Those are crucial goals that won’t happen without taxpayer investment. Nor can the state just sit still and do nothing without falling behind. There is much still to do.
Shumlin has the energy, the will and the foresight. He needs to hit the reset button, learn from this humbling election and reach out to Vermonters in a straightforward conversation about the challenges ahead and why they are so vital to achieve. If he can make that case successfully, he’ll be able to bounce back and accomplish a good deal of what he set out to do.
Angelo S. Lynn

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