Editorial: Voters can take charge of the discussion in governor’s race

Since Rep. Peter Welch’s announced last Friday that he would seek reelection to Congress and not be a candidate for governor, the governor’s race has become the horse race to watch. Not only will the campaigns be fascinating from a political perspective, but the outcome has the potential to change the state’s present course or build upon the progress made over the past five years. As importantly, the public has the opportunity to mold the debates — especially as it pertains to economic growth.
Leading candidates for the Democrats will likely be House Speaker Shap Smith, as well as former gubernatorial candidate and Google executive Matt Dunne. Sue Minter, Secretary of the Agency of Transportation, also has been mentioned as a possible candidate, and others will surely join come to the fore. Dunne promises to tout his experience in the high-tech field with Google and his experience with knowledge-based business. Smith will focus on his vast experience as a legislator who not only knows how to get legislation passed, but also where we’ve fallen short; affordable housing is a key concern for Smith as is affordable health care and a livable wage.
Among Republicans, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is now almost certain to jump into the race as the leading contender, along with mumblings from former gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne, who nearly defeated Gov. Peter Shumlin in a surprisingly close finish this past November. Franklin County state senator Randy Brock might try for the state’s highest position again, and Bruce Lisman, successful businessman and founder of the Campaign for Vermont, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate. Each will likely highlight their business experience and harp on the state’s regulatory environment, taxes and high expenses. Pressing them to define solutions to those platforms and explain the pros and cons, including what falls to the wayside will be mandatory.
Candidates from the Progressive Party might consider a run, as will candidates from Vermont’s fringe parties.
The competition is healthy for Vermont’s democracy, of course, but this campaign also has the potential to particularly advance the discussion on economic development. Why? What’s different?
In a few words, there are fewer issues to distract the conversation.
While growing jobs has been the highest priority for most state leaders over the past 25 years, that pledge has been diverted by dozens of major issues, from the wisdom of Act 60 to civil unions, to terrorism and 9-11, and in recent years by the Great Recession of 2008-09-10; by Hurricane Irene in 2011; by the promise of health care reform in the past three terms; by the sudden emergence of opiate addiction; and since 2012 by this Republican Congress’s decision to significantly cut funding to the states, which has forced Vermont and other states to reallocate resources and, often, cut funding for economic development to make up for losses in critical social services.
Throughout all that, progress has been made and since the Great Recession bottomed out and started its slow recovery around 2010, the state has steadily moved forward — sometimes in ways more fundamental (that is, laying a solid foundation on which to grow) than dollars in the bank.
For example:
• Vermont has largely recovered from the 100-year storm damage caused by TS Irene, and done so by building bigger so we withstand the next similar storm.
• We’ve confronted the challenge of opiate addiction in a very public and aggressive way, and have openly laid out a plan to address it.
• We’ve struggled with implementing health care reform, but with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling supporting the legality of Obamacare, we have the option to decide how best to move forward on a viable health care exchange and continue to keep a lid on health care expenses while improving patient health — all issues that weren’t even on the table in prior years.
•  We recently passed an economic development law that introduces more initiatives and money into job growth and tourism — significant accomplishments in an era of extremely tight budgets.
• We passed a revised renewable energy law that encourages our continued push for solar, wind and other alternative energy — keeping us in the forefront of an important job-producing industry.
• And we’ve passed a water quality bill that, at the very least, starts to address cleaning up our lakes, thus developing a stronger economy around tourism and our fisheries.
• School reform and improving student outcomes is also a big part of building a stronger economy, an issue that was helped by the recent passage of Act 48.
Naturally, there is much still to do; always is, always will be.
But those accomplishments set the state in a good position to focus on what the majority of Vermonters consider our biggest challenge: creating more jobs and recruiting workers and their families to live here.
It’s a multi-faceted effort that is not just about creating new jobs, but also tied closely to an affordable higher education, affordable housing and quality of life issues that are the basis of a growing economy. With Democrats and Republicans focused largely on that single issue, Vermont voters should be ready to press the candidates for well-conceived plans and not be content with sound bites.
Terms such as “business friendly” should be exposed for the empty rhetoric it belies. Republicans and Democrats have been actively advocating “business friendly” policies for the past 25 years. Voters must press candidates to go beyond simplistic slogans or blaming others. Rather, there is no reason not to demand of candidates thorough business plans — set 20 pages as a minimum that are prominently displayed on each candidate’s website — that lay out the challenges of each economic sector and how they will address them; as well as new ideas and approaches they would launch.
To protests that voters don’t want such detail, we would counter that such specificity is exactly what Vermonters want to see in this upcoming election, and most assuredly, they do not want to endure 12 months of meaningless sound bites.
How do Vermont voters take control of the election and force such discussion? By knowing the issues. By becoming educated about what the state has done in the past and how to move forward. By studying each candidate’s platform and pressing each candidate to explain why their approach is better. By demanding more thoughtful consideration of the issue and not letting the candidates skate by with generic platitudes.
Vermont is small enough to make that happen. Start now. Read. Research. And be ready to grill the candidates when they come to town. If we do it well, we just might discover an economic game plan that works, and elect a leader who can build upon it for the next several years.
Angelo S. Lynn

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