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Guest Editorial: How do we grow is our political leadership balks?

Art Woolf, the oft-cited University of Vermont economics professor, last week explained the source of Vermont’s economic difficulties to the annual gathering of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corp. It was not lengthy. Nor was it complicated. The prevailing leadership in Vermont, he said, doesn’t like growth.
There are complicating factors. We’re small. We’re geographically isolated. We don’t have a hospitable climate and we’re old and growing older. Even a pro-growth movement would find Vermont tough sledding.
But that pro-growth sentiment doesn’t exist and when the conversation is continually focused on issues that treat growth as the problem, the perception of Vermont being anti-growth becomes ensconced.
Politically, that’s worked in Vermont for the better part of a generation. There is a question as to how much longer that can be allowed.
The people most affected by a no-growth mentality are the low and middle income. This is where the wage stagnation hits hardest. This is the cohort that sees little hope and, particularly among the young, this is the group that is spending more than it saves.
The only way their fortunes can be improved is through strong economic growth.
As Mr. Woolf explains, we have a political class in Vermont that recoils at the thought. We are constantly being told that the wealth exists, that it just needs to be distributed more fairly.
But the wealth doesn’t exist at the level necessary to fund their various objectives. There are only 8,500 income tax filers in Vermont who earn in excess of $200,000 annually. We already have a tax system that is judged to be more progressive than most. There isn’t enough blood to be squeezed from these stones.
Our leaders should focus their attention to what happened on Nov. 4, not only in Vermont, but in Washington, D.C., and in the state capitols across the nation.
Of the 50 states, 31 now have governors who are Republicans.
Of the 98 legislative chambers nationally, 69 of them are controlled by Republicans.
Both the U.S. Senate and House are controlled by the Republicans. It can be argued that Congress may flip back in two years, but that’s a long shot. No one, however, expects the Republicans to lose their grip on the nation’s legislatures. And that’s the place from which the next generation of political leadership will emerge.
This group also has, as its primary focus, the need to grow. That’s its path to continued power; that’s how it sends its political roots into the middle class.
Can Vermont operate in isolation? Can it continue to operate as if the other states don’t exist?
Not well.
People are more mobile than they have ever been. Those most capable will seek their fortunes where the opportunities exist. If, as Mr. Woolf suggests, those who lead us bristle at the thought of growth, then how is it that we put in place policies that encourage (or at the very least don’t discourage) growth?
Consider two initiatives that are already in play for the upcoming legislative session: The $2 billion payment proposal for the governor’s single-payer health care plan, and the proposal to shift the property tax burden from the homeowner to businesses and/or to the income tax.
We must compete with other states for the same growth potentials. How do our policy considerations match against those from other states?
That’s the sort of political and economic reality Mr. Woolf suggests is in play.

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