Governor takes jabs, touts record during Bristol event
BRISTOL — Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on Monday used what will be his last legislative luncheon appearance in Addison County to trumpet what he believes have been his top accomplishments, and he also took heat from some of his opponents on issues such as the Addison Natural Gas Project.
Shumlin made his comments at luncheon held at Bristol’s American Legion, sponsored by the Bridport Grange and Addison County Farm Bureau. The governor is in his sixth and final year as the state’s chief executive. He is not running for re-election this November, after eking out a victory in 2014 over Republican Scott Milne.
A six-year run ties him for the fifth-longest tenure among governors in Vermont’s history, according to Shumlin.
“Being here in Addison County, in (Jim) Douglas country, people think governors serve for eight years; or for Howard Dean, 11 years,” Shumlin said. “But they are the exception.”
Shumlin took some heat for his support of the Vermont Gas Systems project, which features a pipeline that will extend from Colchester to Middlebury, with an offshoot to Vergennes. The pipeline continues to draw opposition, particularly in Monkton, where a few property owners continue to fight easements needed for Vermont Gas’s preferred route.
Some Addison County residents on Monday chastised Shumlin for continuing to support the pipeline project while at the same time touting renewable energy initiatives.
Cornwall resident Mary Martin remains steadfast in her opposition to the pipeline. She blasted Shumlin for backing a memorandum of understanding last October between the state and Vermont Gas that she said ultimately convinced the Vermont Public Service Board not to reopen the project docket — and thus potentially reject — the pipeline.
“You promote renewables, and at the same time you are pushing this pipeline down our throats,” Martin said. “We don’t want it. It has no place in the future of this state.”
She urged Shumlin, in perhaps a final act in office, to lobby against the project.
But Shumlin said he continues to support the pipeline as a means of giving residents and businesses what he believes will be a cheaper, cleaner alternative to fuel oil. He also sees natural gas as an economic development tool.
“You can disagree with me on this one, but you can’t accuse me of not being consistent,” Shumlin said. “I said from day one, ‘I support the pipeline.’ What I said is ‘I’m going to move us to renewables as soon as we know how … ’ But I have been very clear from the beginning that I want to extend the natural gas pipeline to Addison and Rutland counties.”
Shumlin was not bashful about taking his own victory lap at what could be his last foray into Addison County.
“When I came on, we were just coming out of the worst recession in American history. Things were pretty tough,” he said. “Since then, we have created 17,000 new jobs. We have gone through the period in the past five-and-a-half years where, for the first time since they started keeping records in 1943, Vermonters’ incomes have gone up above the national average every single year.”
The governor said employers have, since he took office, gone from a period of reducing their workforces to a point now of searching desperately for qualified people to fill vacancies.
To that end, Shumlin touted his push for new programs that allow high school graduates better access to post-secondary education within the state college system, and a new law that gives every 3- and 4-year-old access to pre-K education. He noted Vermont also now requires individualized work plans for students that are tied to the students’ career paths, beginning in middle school.
“Vermont does beautifully getting kids through high school,” Shumlin said. “What we were failing miserably at is getting more Vermont kids beyond high school,” adding, “Today, if you stop your education at the end of high school, you are sentencing yourself to a lower-wage job for life, almost certainly.”
The governor also touted his commitment to growing Vermont’s green-energy industry.
“I know we’ve got the Route 7 problem. You learn a lot when you’re doing something new,” Shumlin said, acknowledging the visual impact of rapid solar farm development along the state’s western corridor — most notably in New Haven. “But the fact that we have delivered on an energy vision that I came into office with and campaigned on, and actually made it happen, is really good for Vermont.”
He specifically cited his support for the shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, and replacing it with solar, wind and other renewables.
“I said, ‘It will create jobs, it will lower rates, and it will serve us well,’” Shumlin said.
It’s a path that, according to Shumlin, has created a flourishing renewable energy industry that is currently responsible for 4.7 percent of the jobs in Vermont.
“(These workers) are 30 and under,” Shumlin said. “And they’re excited about being here, living here and working here.”
Meanwhile, Vermont’s electric rates have gone down, according to Shumlin.
“My point is, let’s keep with it,” Shumlin said. “When you hear politicians say, ‘Let’s have a moratorium on renewables,’ I say, ‘You tell me on your moratorium whose job you are eliminating? … Whose rates are you going to increase?’”
Shumlin even put a silver lining on what some pundits would call his biggest setback: health care reform. Shumlin pushed for Vermont to devise and implement a single-payer health care system. But a study revealed such a system to be financially unsustainable as proposed in the Green Mountain State.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Health Connect website — a platform for linking Vermonters to affordable insurance plans — has been expensive and fraught with technical glitches.
“I know I didn’t get all I wanted in health care,” Shumlin said. “But I got a lot more than the press will give us credit for.”
In spite of the setbacks, Shumlin said only 3.6 percent of Vermonters currently have no health insurance, something he attributed to Vermont Health Connect and the federal Affordable Care Act.
“That’s universal coverage,” Shumlin said. “You can’t get it below 3 percent.”
Shumlin said he’s pleased that Vermont appears to be the first state “that’s moving from a fee-for-service, quantity-driven health care system … to one where we pay for outcomes and keeping us healthy.”
Turning back the tide of opiate addiction is another area in which Vermont has made gains during the past few years, according to Shumlin.
He applauded the Senate Welfare Committee — chaired by Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison — for unanimously endorsing bill S.243, which directs the state’s health commissioner to adopt rules governing the prescription of opioids for acute pain for major and minor procedures and place limits on the number of pills that can be prescribed for some procedures.
Shumlin made the war against opioid addiction a focal point of his 2014 State of the State address. The governor proposed a strategy that included more support for recovery centers and treatment rather than jail time for addicts.
“We have saved $50 million in the last four years on money that we’re not spending on corrections,” Shumlin said.
He acknowledged that Vermont, with the rest of the country, needs to do more to fight addiction.
“Until we have an honest conversation in this country about painkillers that are approved by the FDA, we won’t stop the waiting lines into our treatment centers, and we won’t stop the tragedies in Bristol, in Middlebury, in Vergennes and anywhere in Vermont,” Shumlin said. “In 2010, we gave out enough Oxycontin to keep every living adult in America high for a month.”
Shumlin transitioned from tough talk on opioids to continued words of support for the legalization of a different drug: Marijuana. The Vermont Senate has OK’d such a bill, which is now in the House.
The governor pointed to a recent survey that asked Vermonters if they had purchased marijuana during the past month. He said 80,000 Vermonters said they had.
“We act as if nobody’s smoking pot,” Shumlin said.
While he said he does not condone smoking marijuana, he said legalizing possession of small quantities of the substance (up to an ounce for Vermont adults) would discourage drug dealing — if it is regulated and taxed at a reasonable rate. He added evidence has shown that high school students are currently having an easier time buying pot from dealers than they are obtaining alcohol.
“I am not saying, ‘Go out and smoke pot,’” Shumlin said. “I say, ‘Don’t smoke pot, don’t drink too much alcohol, and don’t smoke cigarettes.’ But the reason we moved to a regulated market for alcohol is that prohibition was failing us miserably. I say the war on drugs has failed us miserably, when it comes to marijuana.”
Shumlin said he has heard anecdotal information through Colorado officials that drug-related crime has gone down in that state since pot was legalized. Drug dealers, Shumlin said, needed the pot as part of their supply market.
“I say put the drug dealers out of business,” Shumlin said.
Still, participants at Monday’s luncheon challenged Shumlin’s position on pot.
Middlebury resident Bob Nixon said other studies have shown marijuana-related emergency room visits have been up 110 percent in Colorado since the state legalized pot. Most of those visits were from visitors to Colorado, Nixon alleged.
“My concern is for our children. What are they going to think when the governor says it’s OK to (smoke pot), the government legalized it and my parents are doing it?” Nixon said.
But Shumlin maintained that legalizing marijuana would solve drug problems rather than create new ones.
“We can confront the problem, or pretend it’s not happening,” Shumlin said.
The governor was also questioned about his support of Democrat Hillary Clinton for president rather than her party rival, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders won 87 percent of the votes cast in Vermont’s Democratic primary on March 1.
Shumlin said he likes Sanders and has a good working relationship with him, but believes “Hillary is the more qualified person to do the toughest job in the world.”
He also shed some light on his political future. Recently married, Shumlin plans to return to his job at the helm of Putney Student Travel, his family’s business.
“You could not get me to get on an airplane every Tuesday and fly from Vermont to Washington, D.C., and stay there until Friday or Saturday, to do mostly nothing, because Congress doesn’t do anything right now,” Shumlin said. “That’s not my idea of life.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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