Op/Ed

Opinion: Path to prosperity created by thoughtful investment

Once upon on time, I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. I learned important lessons about setting goals and navigating to a far off destination that — while very real — was not yet in sight.
I learned to pick out a star and steer by it. The star was not the destination, but it pointed the way.
As a state senator, the star I steer by these days is a vision of prosperity for Vermont. The destination itself we will define through work together in the years ahead to create a state that offers all of us the support and help needed to reach our best future in terms of health, family, community and employment.
Like any real voyage, the path to prosperity entails difficulty, expense and the risk of failure, but I believe that the value of this trip is compelling for two reasons:
First, as veteran travelers know, bonds of genuine understanding are often formed during a trip — and such a sense of being “in this together” is needed now more than ever because today there are strong partisans actively seeking to divide citizens to promote their own narrow agendas. Committing to the journey and the very act of working together will strengthen our communities and vastly increase our likelihood of success.
Second, the goal of a prosperous Vermont is not merely a “nice idea.” It is vital to our long-term health and well-being as a state. In this age of globalization that is relentlessly seeking to make everything cheaper, we must actively counter a trend that works to cheapen us through lower wages and reduced benefits, to cheapen our products, and to accept an ever-decreasing sense of security.
In short, setting a course for prosperity is essential to our long-term well-being.
This course must be distinguished from a false alternative that is being vaguely and seductively offered to Vermonters — that is the road to “affordability.”
Affordability rests on the philosophy of not just avoiding new taxes and fees, but on reducing both. This may sound attractive, and it is certainly winning rhetoric for those thinking in the short term timeframe of two-year election cycles.  We need to think through the long-term the implications of this approach. What kind of state will this approach create? Where will this take us by 2029, or 2039?
In a country and state in which inflation generally increases average costs 2 to 3 percent each year, the affordability approach means starving the vast array of services we purchase for ourselves collectively: public education and job training; Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and public health services; public roads and bridges; environmental programs to provide safe drinking water and clean air; public police, fire and rescue services; public assistance to individuals and families in need through poverty, disability, injury, drug addiction and job loss; public green spaces including parks, forests, and wildlife and recreation areas; and our judicial system. 
Each of us could add many more items to this list of how we invest in building the sort of families, communities and state that we want for ourselves and our fellow citizens. When we starve these programs, we starve ourselves now and we undermine the opportunities for prosperity for our children and grandchildren.
So-called “affordability” focuses not on a better future, but anxiously on our past, on holding on to what we have — or had. We should and must appreciate our heritage, but we cannot live there. We must look ahead and move forward, and we must be bold. We need to define progress in terms that address the needs of today and the decades ahead. And then we need to set a course to build that future.
The course to prosperity involves steady, long-term investment — in ourselves and our communities. The knee-jerk reaction will be to say that we do not have the capacity for such investment, but our own history demonstrates that this is a false narrative. From 2006 to 2015, Vermont residents spending on health care spending in Vermont increased by $2.7 billion, and somehow we “found” the money. Even our small state has a vast economy, currently totaling $32 billion; finding the money is a matter of making wise, steady and intentional choices.
The funds for these “prosperity investments” can be found in two principal places: (1) the increased, appropriate and targeted use of bonds — such as the creation of Freedom and Unity Bonds, a modern-day crowd-sourced fund built on Vermonter-to-Vermont lending; and (2) increased revenues generated by a stronger local economy.
Vermont has a world-class story to tell on rebuilding our local economy. It’s an economy based on the best use of Vermont’s unique assets and strengths, which broadly fall into two categories: commercial growth and social investments.
On the commerce side, here are three major investments that have the ability to continue to grow:
•  Our new food and agriculture economy, guided by our work through the Farm to Plate program and related complimentary efforts has produced over the last decade more than 7,700 new jobs, 842 new farms/businesses, and over $200 million in new in-state spending. From 2007 to 2012, food systems revenues grew 32 percent from $7.6 billion to over $10 billion.
•  Our clean energy economy (renewable energy generation, weatherization and efficiency) now employs over 18,800 Vermonters and has been one of the most rapidly growing job sectors in the last decade. There is an opportunity to recapture for our in-state economy $500 million-$800 million of the nearly $2 billion we export each year buying in energy products (transportation and heating fuels and electricity).  
•  Our clean water economy is emerging as we embark on the state’s largest-ever capital investment program, totaling $3 billion over the next 20 years. These efforts will support a wide array of local jobs in engineering, construction, agronomy, and management to fulfill the state’s goals to have safe swimmable, drinkable and fishable waters everywhere.
•  Last, and in contrast, we have failed to invest sufficiently to fully realize our potential in terms of entrepreneurs and tourism. A major opportunity lies in new businesses and capitalizing on the tourism potential of our extraordinary state.
On the social investment side, here is work we’ve begun but which needs additional support and development:
•  We have great schools and we need to maintain them; we also need better childcare and early childhood education for children from birth to five; and we need better post-secondary access to affordable college and job training for all Vermont adults throughout their lives.
•  We have a high level of public safety; we also need to invest more to divert people suffering from addiction from jail and back into being productive members of society; similarly, we also need to help those who have served their time to re-enter and find a healthy place in our communities.
•  We need to support working families better by implementing a higher minimum wage and a cost-effective, business-friendly paid family and medical leave insurance program.
•  We need not just access to healthcare, but health care itself; we need universal primary care so that every sick Vermonter can get the care they need when they need it, all while saving money because timely care costs less.
•  We need more low- and moderate-cost housing; such projects provide jobs during their construction, grow the grand list of host towns, and increase the quality of life for working Vermonters. Safe, sanitary and reasonably priced housing is a necessity for all.
The pathway to prosperity is a journey that will last decades. We do not know all its details, but I know that if we choose and act, we will make our way to a better, more prosperous future.
As we begin a new year and a new legislative session, let us commit to the journey and work ahead.
Sen. Christopher Bray is a New Haven Democrat who will be sworn in to his fourth term in the state Senate this Wednesday.

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