Guest editorial: The Legislature and Vermont’s core challenge
The Vermont Legislature returned to work with a single goal that should prevail over all others — the need to redeploy and reallocate the resources we have to break us out of the low-growth cycle we’re in.
Everything else is a sideshow.
It’s doable. But it will require putting aside the routine political machinations that come with the November general election. It’s not about raising the minimum wage — which would only hurt those it would be set up to help — or about raising taxes, or by trying to correct at the state level what the federal government has changed at the national level.
It’s about admitting that we have a demographic issue that is challenging us to the core. It’s about admitting that our growth is concentrated in — at tops — four counties, and that Chittenden County is the only county spared pockets of poverty. It’s about recognizing the mismatch between what we spend on education and what we get in return, and asking what can be done to increase the percentage of students who pursue higher education. It’s about addressing fundamental challenges to adults who cannot enter the workforce because affordable (and quality) childcare is not available.
As a state, we don’t have the resources to open a statewide marketing campaign trying to lure businesses to our shores. And we cannot afford the sorts of campaigns being pursued elsewhere — like New York and its free tuition programs, or New Haven, Connecticut, which not only offers free in-state tuition, but as much as $40,000 toward a home if the recipients will only stay for a decade.
Our challenge is several-fold; we have to be competitive as to our cost of living, we have to be appealing as a place for our youth to stay and as a place for tomorrow’s generation to live and work, and we have to have the amenities that make us attractive to upcoming generations.
To do that requires focusing on core objectives, the sorts of things that are valued most.
First, is the state of our schools and the quality of the education offered. We spend $1.6 billion on our schools and we educate roughly 78,000 students. We have the resources to do much better than we’re doing and the resources for the process to be more inclusive, particularly when it comes to the 0-5 age group. This also includes addressing childcare needs and it includes a refocus on higher education spending. Second, like it or not, we have a new reality and that reality is a federal government that has every chance of being less and less charitable toward states, and particularly high-cost, highly taxed states. Like Vermont. We need to figure out what that means and how we adjust; it doesn’t work to stick our heads in the sand and hope for a different outcome. Vermont’s too small for Washington to care.
Third, we can no longer tread water hoping that a plan will appear out of the mist to guide us to a more prosperous future. There is no question that we will continue to see downward pressure on our spending patterns. There is no question that our budgets will struggle to meet projections. And, if trends continue, there is no question that our demographic challenges will intensify.
That’s our reality.
But Vermonters would feel better if those realities were admitted to rather than denied. And they would feel better if there were a plan we could agree to that moved us forward. We’re not alone; most of New England is in the same fix.
The definition of a good legislative session would be a bipartisan approach to Vermont’s fundamental challenge, which is how best to keep what we have, and to expand our economic opportunities.
Cross your fingers.
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