Former VTrans head Sue Minter pushes for free higher ed. in Gov. race

MIDDLEBURY — Sue Minter coordinated upgrades to hundreds of miles of the state’s roads and dozens of its bridges during her brief run as secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans).
The Waterbury Center Democrat is now getting a first-hand glimpse of those improvements as she campaigns to become the next governor of Vermont.
“It’s an extraordinary journey,” Minter said on Friday during an interview at the Addison Independent. “I am constantly inspired by people stepping up in amazing ways to address challenges.”
If elected, Minter said her top priority would be to increase the numbers of Vermont high school graduates attending college or technical school training.
“We do a great job in Vermont of getting kids through high school,” Minter said. “We have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country. But when it comes to continuation beyond high school, we are at the bottom of the country 48th out of 50.”
With that in mind, she has crafted a “Vermont Promise” initiative calling for Vermont high school graduates to be given two tuition-free years at Community College of Vermont or Vermont Technical College. Students would be assigned mentors to focus on career aspirations, with the goal of a job at the end of that process.
“We are going to get, by 2025, 75 percent of Vermont students enrolled in some kind of continuing education program so they can fill the spots that are going empty right now,” Minter said. “For me, it’s about the ability for our businesses that want to grow to have qualified workers so they can have livable wage jobs and break that cycle of poverty. It’s a win-win-win.”
Minter pointed to research indicating two-thirds of the jobs of the 21st century will require some kind of education and training. Those who do not follow in that path risk being left behind in what she called a pattern of “generational poverty.”
She said her tuition program could be financed through an increase in the bank franchise fee and/or having banks be subject to corporate income taxes. She estimates the first year of her program would cost $6 million, and $12 million annually thereafter. The state would cover the last dollar costs, which are tuition expenses beyond what a student could win in grants and scholarships.
Minter has focused on this higher-education program because she believes it is one key to getting Vermont youth to stay in the state, provide an educated work force from which the business community can grow, and that it breaks the cycle of poverty. “What is the most important thing I can do as a legacy as the next governor?” she asked. “For me, it is this (tuition program).”
Another one of Minter’s stated priorities is helping Vermont improve its environmental standing and solidify its status as a national leader in renewable energy industries and jobs.
Minter went to Bennington when PFOA contamination was discovered in the drinking water there. She advocated for an increase in state bonding for water system improvements as a means of preventing such contamination from occurring in the future.
“It is an enormous challenge and obligation, and I want to take it on,” Minter said of the state’s infrastructure needs, including water sources, sewage capacity, and transportation.
She credited previous generations of Vermonters for investing in many of the roads and bridges that are now showing signs of wear and tear due to deferred maintenance. The fix-up bill is now due, according to Minter.
“It is our turn to invest in infrastructure,” she said.
Minter took some credit for getting the ball rolling on deferred maintenance. Twenty percent of the state’s bridges were classified as “structurally deficient” when Minter began her tenure as transportation secretary. When she left office, that number had been whittled down to 7 percent. Minter created a special “bridges” unit and leveraged state and federal money to embark on a more aggressive repair-and-replace schedule. She and her VTrans colleagues developed an “accelerated” schedule for refurbishing bridges that trimmed the construction timeline (from design to build) from an average eight to two years.
“Government needs to become more efficient,” she said.
Public investment in road and bridge projects can also serve as a catalyst for economic development, according to Minter. She cited the examples of Barre and St. Albans as communities that emerged from some painfully long projects with a renaissance of new retail, commercial and residential development. She believes Middlebury could receive the same shot in the arm in the aftermath of a scheduled replacement of its two downtown rail overpasses. That $40 million project is slated to kick off later this year.
Like most of her opponents in the gubernatorial race, Minter favors an increase in Vermont’s minimum wage. She wants to see it climb to $12.50 per hour come 2018, and then gradually climb to $15. And she believes the Vermont’s agricultural industry could play an even bigger role in fueling the state’s economy. She said her administration would give more technical assistance to farmers who want to create Vermont-branded products and export them. And she wants to cultivate an even closer relationship between farms and local consumers, citing the “Farm to Plate” and “Farm to School” programs as something to build on.
Minter recently rolled out her two-pronged economic development plan for the state, which she called “Invest Vermont,” and “Innovate Vermont.” It calls for, among other things:
• Continuing to invest in growth in and around downtowns and village centers.
• Coordinating the various programs benefitting downtown centers to make a bigger impact on municipal infrastructure. She noted a $19 million infrastructure project in Barre recently leveraged  $45 million of private investment.
“You now see a growing manufacturing, commercial, retail and  residential base,” Minter said. “It’s a coordination of programs within state, federal and local government, and it’s local leadership. That combination, I know, is critical to our future, because we have a lot of needs for economic stimulus and growth.” If elected, Minter said her administration would select three communities that are ready for a coordinated makeover of various transportation, water, sewer and affordable housing upgrades.
• Assembling statewide leaders of advanced manufacturing, renewable energy, forest/farm economy and high tech industries for talks on how to intensify those sectors. The talks would, within 90 days, produce a list of recommendations on “what they need to succeed and grow here in Vermont.”
Minter said she supports giving communities more control over the siting of renewable energy projects, something the Legislature tried to address through bill S.260. That bill is designed to give more local control over the siting of solar projects to communities that develop energy plans that are consistent with the state’s long-term renewable energy goals.
“I am a strong supporter, promoter and will continue to be a champion of renewable energy in this state,” Minter said, adding related industries have been growing and hiring the young demographic that Vermont has been losing.
“That said, we have increased by 10 times the number of solar arrays in six years and one out of every 17 people is in the renewable energy and efficiency sector. We are the number one green jobs state, per capita. It is something we don’t want to put a damper on. But… I certainly see the importance of planning and local development review.”
The state’s Section 248 review process currently allows the three-person Public Service Board to decide renewable energy applications. Minter said the PSB has been flooded with applications to review, and could benefit by having developers and communities discuss projects earlier in the review process.
“The exponential growth of the industry is coming to a bumpy time,” Minter said. “The problem is that communities are being pitted against developers… I do believe we need a greater voice and access; I don’t believe we can have a veto power over a project.”
Minter said the state, in concert with regional planners, could develop a map of logical places where renewable energy projects could occur. That map could become part of the conversation on future siting of solar and wind projects, she said.
Minter noted that the next governor will appoint a new PSB chairperson in February, 2017.
“I want that person to have always an impartial focus on serving the public good,” Minter said. “But I think we need someone who can think a little bit differently about how that board interacts with communities… We still have to have a more customer-friendly focus, which I don’t believe is the current culture of the board.”
Minter has been watching, with interest, the public votes on school governance unification through Vermont’s Act 46. She has heard a wide range of feedback about the new law during her travels as a candidate. 
“In rural parts of the state, this conversation is so new and is creating so much frustration and anger,” she said. “‘One size fits all’ doesn’t work everywhere.”
Part of that frustration, Minter said, stems from declining student enrollment and the perception that Act 46 could become a precursor to closing small public schools. Minter stressed she would not call for closing schools, but instead advocate that communities use unfilled portions of their school buildings for other purposes — such as hosting child care or youth/senior centers.
Minter has come out in favor of mandatory background checks for those purchasing firearms, and also supports a ban on assault weapons. She admitted that these positions have drawn criticism in a state that has some of the most relaxed gun ownership laws in the nation.
“I have heard, ‘we don’t have a (gun violence) problem here,’” Minter said. But she pointed to statistics showing that the majority of homicides in the state are domestic violence-related, with the majority of those incidents involving guns.
“I learned that in 2013, Vermont had the eighth-highest rate of domestic homicide in the country (per capita), and the majority of those were with guns,” Minter said. 
Asked about her position on health care, Minter said she believes the state must make functional its beleaguered Vermont Health Connect exchange. The state must also implement cost-containment measures and reward providers who are able to keep patients out of hospitals, where they usually need more expensive and invasive care.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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