GOP candidate for governor Lisman seeks government accountability
MIDDLEBURY — Retired Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman believes Vermont’s governor should run the state more like a business. And as a former high-level administrator at Bear Stearns, Lisman said he has developed the necessary skills to help make key decisions about Vermont’s future and to treat citizens like “valued clients” instead of simply as taxpayers.
Lisman, 69, is a University of Vermont graduate who went on to serve as chairman of his alma mater’s board of trustees. Upon his retirement in 2009, the Shelburne Republican returned to his home state and founded Campaign for Vermont, which bills itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to the vision of a more prosperous Vermont.”
It’s an organization that has provided non-financial support to conservative political candidates and positions promoting a more business-friendly state and transparency in government.
He is in a gubernatorial race that currently includes fellow Republican (and Lt. Gov.) Phil Scott and Democrats Matt Dunne and Sue Minter. Dunne is a former state senator and Google executive, while Minter is a former Vermont secretary of transportation.
Lisman said he has been on the road “non-stop” since announcing his gubernatorial bid last October. He estimates he has spoken one-on-one with around 3,000 people throughout Vermont, soliciting their concerns and sharing his ideas to make the state a better place in which to live and work.
“(Voters) may not vote for a candidate for their ideas, I’ve determined, but they need to hear the ideas,” Lisman said. “People want a general idea of what you’re thinking.”
During his travels, Lisman has found Vermonters concerned by some common problems: rising taxes, the surging cost of living, a sluggish economy and crumbling state infrastructure. These problems, Lisman said, are making it tougher for the state to attract new businesses and jobs, thus resulting in the exodus of large numbers of young Vermonters.
“People talk about a government that seems indifferent, that doesn’t listen,” Lisman said during his March 4 interview at the Independent.
In addition to holding a perception that state government is tone-deaf, Lisman said Vermonters with whom he has spoken believe the Legislature and current Gov. Peter Shumlin have shown incompetence. He specifically cited the state’s inability to iron out problems in the Vermont Health Connect website, designed to link citizens to health insurance plans.
While he does not consider himself aligned with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in any significant way, Lisman does believe he can tap into voters’ dissatisfaction with “politics as usual” and offer them skills and a perspective shaped by decades in the private sector.
“The outsider is I think something people find attractive, but I think it’s better than that. It’s competence,” Lisman said.
For example, Lisman believes the state’s chief executive should look upon his or her constituents as “clients” and not “customers” or “fellow Vermonters.” A “client,” Lisman said, is someone that the service provider gets to know and thus can better tailor services to fit their needs and desires.
“Let’s have a government that spends people’s money well, and that is charged with … providing services exceptionally well,” Lisman said. “Let’s have not just a performance-based budget, which we don’t have now, but also an outcomes-based budget. What do we want to accomplish, and did we accomplish it?”
If elected, Lisman said, he would compile “five to 10 super priorities” and build during the course of five or six years a budget that takes care of those priorities.
“It’s not just being a businessman,” Lisman said. “It’s being someone who understands we’re here to take care of people in whichever way they need being taken care of.”
Lisman does not think state government has been doing a good job of taking care of people in recent years, and points to what he believes are some flawed new laws that he said will have a negative impact on Vermonters. He cited Act 46 as an example. Act 46, passed into law last year, encourages groups of school districts to consolidate their governance into a single school board, managing a single education budget for all member schools. The Addison Central and Addison Northwest supervisory unions both passed school governance unification referenda this past Town Meeting Day.
Lisman is no fan of Act 46.
“I don’t care for Act 46, and one of the first things I would do when elected is urge for its repeal, with an alternative in place,” Lisman said.
He stressed, however, that he would not stand in the way of school districts that want to merge. He just doesn’t think it should be mandatory, and doesn’t believe the state will be able to afford the tax rebates and grants that Act 46 has promised to supervisory unions that opt for consolidation.
Act 46 is currently voluntary, but it serves notice that governance consolidation will become a requirement by 2020. Supporters believe the new law will result in more efficient and cost-effective delivery of public education at a time when student enrollment is plunging.
Local communities should be making consolidation decisions, not Montpelier, Lisman argued.
“It’s suspiciously like, ‘What makes you think Washington knows what Addison, Vt., should do,’” Lisman said. “The answer is, they’ve never heard of Addison, Vt., and if they did, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Lisman believes Act 46, like Act 60 and 68 (the state’s school funding laws), “separated the local voter from the local decision making.”
He also alleged that “bad research” went into Act 46.
“It throws numbers around that aren’t accurate,” he said. “There’s no ideal size for a school district.”
Act 46, according to Lisman, penalizes well-run school districts by lumping them in with others that might not be as efficient.
Rather than prescribing unified school districts, Lisman believes the state could set a minimum student-teacher ratio of 12:1 for Vermont schools to achieve within a set number of years. This would force school districts to make tough personnel decisions, but allow them to maintain local control.
“We leave it to the school board and the supervisory union to come up with (the minimum student-teacher ratio),” Lisman said. Lisman believes this process would shave $160 million in public school expenses statewide.
“Sometimes, ‘simple’ is best,” Lisman said.
Vermont’s public education could benefit from expanded school choice, according to Lisman, who would also extend vouchers to private schools (but not religious ones).
Lisman called Vermont Health Connect (VHC) health exchange “a failed effort” that has already cost $200 million in taxpayer dollars. The VHC website has been plagued by technological glitches since its inception.
“This system is never going to be as good as it needs to be,” Lisman said of VHC. “We will need to spend some money just to make it stable.”
After stabilizing the system, Lisman said, Vermont should transition to the federal health care exchange.
“I would let (Vermonters) find their health insurance where they want,” he said. “Let’s entice more competitors.”
Lisman has also called for an audit of the state’s Medicaid program to uncover possible cases of fraud and determine whether clients are healthier as a result of the benefits they receive.
Those who smoke and/or have other unhealthy habits should be charged a premium for insurance, Lisman said. At the same time, those who exercise and live a healthy lifestyle should be rewarded with discounts, he believes.
“Eighty to 90 percent of our visits to the doctor relate to how we treat ourselves,” Lisman said.
Asked how he would promote economic growth in the state, Lisman said he would:
• Partner more extensively with Vermont businesses and entrepreneurs, to get a better sense of what they need to prosper and grow.
“We need a government that is more effective; that does what it is supposed to do, but better; that actually accomplishes things; and is remarkably transparent,” Lisman said. “We need to know where taxes go, but also how well they are spent. We shouldn’t hide things like fees and surcharges. We should tell people.”
• Address the economic factors that make it expensive to live and do business in Vermont. That means turning the tide on surging property taxes, streamlining the permitting process and investing in education, according to Lisman.
“We need to work on affordability, the cost of living and working here,” he said. “Let’s make an agreement that we don’t want any more employers leaving, or any size. Let’s state that as a core principal.”
And the state must do more outreach to find, and nurture, its most successful enterprises, he added.
“You have to find them before they’re big enough to leave,” Lisman said.
• Introduce college students to Vermont companies in need of young professionals, thus allowing them to make a career connection early on.
“I am a fan of apprenticeships,” he added.
Lisman would also support a program that would allow foreign college students to extend their stays in Vermont if they are working on a business start-up.
During his travels, Lisman has listened to concerns about the proliferation of large green energy projects. With that in mind, he said, he’s supporting a temporary moratorium on industrial-scale solar and wind projects until the state can come up with a better siting policy.
Lisman supports the Addison Natural Gas Project, which will soon be feeding natural gas to parts of Middlebury and Vergennes.
Lisman believes he will provide voters with a clear choice.
“If you want what we’ve got, there are three candidates for you,” he said, referring to Dunne, Minter and Scott. “They offer basically what we’ve got, with slightly different versions of it. If you want something different … then take a look at me.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
Editor’s note: This story was updated after it was posted to correct an error. The non-profit organization Campaign for Vermont has not provided financial support to conservative political candidates and positions promoting a more business-friendly state and transparency in government, but Lisman, who founded the organization, has individually donated funds to political candidates and causes, according to Lisman’s campaign manager.
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