Editorial: Voters’ job is to demand specificity from candidates

As Vermonters begin to parse the statements of the various candidates for statewide office, voters should sharpen their own pencils — and talking points — so they are ready to challenge statements that are overly vague or the equivalent of the political sidestep. That’s particularly true of gubernatorial candidates and their proposals to grow Vermont’s economy.
Consider, for example, a recent comment in a gubernatorial debate by Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, when pronouncing one of his ideas: Why, what we need to do is grow the state’s population up to 700,000, Scott said. That would boost the economy and get things going.
No fooling. But why not 750,000 or 800,000? That would really get us humming along, right? And which candidate would be opposed to a steady population growth — particularly in the demographic subset that is 45 and under. Is there a candidate in the race who doesn’t think Vermont needs more young adults to settle, raise a family and put down roots? No one disagrees. The question is how do you accomplish that?
Or consider Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman, who maintains leadership of the economy is relatively easy: just cut spending so it doesn’t exceed the state’s rate of economic growth. But what gets cut, and is that always in the state’s best interest? In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, for example, the state faced a need for massive infrastructure repair at the same time the nation’s and state’s economy were recuperating from the deepest national recession the nation had seen in 75 years. Cutting funding for those in need, or to be cheap in making road repairs (rather than rebuild roads, bridges and culverts so they hopefully withstand the next flood), would have been bad for Vermont’s economy and its people.
The same could be said concerning finding a solution to the state’s (and nation’s) opiate-addiction problem. It is a public health-related crisis that requires state spending if we are to get a handle on it; ignoring the problem until we have enough money to pay for measures to help get it under control is not effective public policy.
Blanket statements about not spending more than the state’s economic growth, in other words, is too simplistic. What gets cut should be detailed by those advocating reductions, as well as the consequences thereof.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne might be on the right track when he suggests creating a $100 million “green jobs fund” that would be tapped to create energy efficiency improvements for apartment buildings throughout the state. The fund would be used as an incentive for landlords to do efficiency improvements, and paid off over 20 years by taking a percentage of the energy savings on the recipient’s fuel bill. The proposal would create energy-efficiency jobs, create fuel savings for renters, reduce carbon emissions, and present no burden to the state budget.
In a similar way, Dunne suggests the state could build more affordable housing by allowing the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board the ability to establish a revenue bond paid via a property tax transfer fee; and he advocates boosting the state’s broadband capacity multiple-times because it holds the economic future of the state. Calling broadband the “electricity of our time,” he proposes specific steps to make that happen with a change in regulatory laws and utilizing existing infrastructure without adding a large financial burden to the state budget. That’s how to create opportunity without also creating a significant tax burden. It’s limited, however, as the total impact of such bonding would take years to make a dent in the state’s economy It’s a start, but no panacea.
Nonetheless, such specificity to economic plans is what voters should demand of the candidates, along with factual presentations of the pros and cons of each proposal.
Not all issues lend themselves to precise calculations — health care and public education are two issues that leap to mind — but wouldn’t it be grand if candidates knew that the more precise and realistic their solutions, and the less vague their rhetoric, the more likely they were to win voters’ support? Building that expectation is the voters’ responsibility.
Angelo S. Lynn

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