By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Jericho Democrat Gaye Symington has a special fondness for the word “energy” when she talks about her campaign for governor these days.
The current Vermont House Speaker talks about the energy she would bring to the job as the state’s chief executive, and how energy policy is of paramount importance at a time when gasoline is hovering around $4 per gallon.
Symington enters a race that includes incumbent Gov. James Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, and Progressive Anthony Pollina of Middlesex. Now in her second term as speaker, Symington when away from the Legislature is development director for the Intervale Foundation, a nonprofit organization that runs various agriculture-based ventures in Burlington.
It wasn’t until recently that she decided to forego a re-election bid for her House seat in order to make her first run for governor. She said she looks forward to the challenge.
Symington said she first considered running for governor last fall, but a busy legislative session and other responsibilities forced her to delay her decision until this spring.
“As the legislative session moved on, more and more people came up to me and said, ‘You are the person to do this; we really want you to consider doing this,’” Symington recalled. “It really wasn’t until late-March that I realized I really have to allow myself to think this through in a complete way.”
She formally announced her gubernatorial bid at the Statehouse earlier this month. Symington said she came to the realization she could bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to charting a more prosperous course for Vermont.
“I’m not picking this up as a party banner,” Symington said. “I am definitely out to win and am doing this because I feel I am the right candidate at the right time. I have the track record and the ideas to bring to the job.”
She believes her main job as governor would be to make sure Vermonters have access to better jobs.
“My priority is growing the Vermont economy in a way that builds on our strengths,” Symington said. “I’m focused on good jobs, where there is opportunity for income growth that keeps pace with the kind of pressure we see in so many of our basic needs.”
Symington said of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in the state right now, only one — registered nurse — allows the worker to afford a median-priced home (around $220,000) in the state.
If the state is to grow more good paying jobs, according to Symington, it will have to remove some economic development obstacles with which businesses must now contend in the region: high energy costs, inadequate transportation and telecommunications systems, surging health care premiums, and a lack of affordable housing.
“I feel as if Gov. Douglas is forever articulating barriers (to economic prosperity),” Symington said. “We’re in the status quo; we don’t have a sense of where we’re trying to go as a state and what we hear is a sense that there are all these ‘barriers’ and all these ‘problems’ in Vermont,” Symington said.
“I understand that Vermont has challenges — I would not want to pretend that everything is hunky-dory, and we just have to enjoy our mountains and drink our milk,” she added. “I just sense there is so much opportunity to build on who we are as a state.”
Symington charged that the Douglas administration has stood in the way of substantial reforms in health care and energy policy
“I’m a pragmatist; I’m fully aware that we can’t turn our health care system on its head; we can’t make overnight massive changes,” Symington said. “But I do know that we’ve got to make some decisions and move forward, and then keep our shoulder to the wheel. To do that, you have to have a sense of where you want to go. That, I don’t sense at all, from this administration.”
Symington said she wants to take Vermont forward with an agenda that includes creating more high paying jobs, more affordable housing and a long-term energy policy.
She believes Vermont can play a major role in the growing transition homes and businesses are making from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
“As you look at global warming and all of the reality that’s going to come with massive change in our national and international economies, there’s a great deal of entrepreneurship and innovation that’s going to be moving — and that’s our sweet spot,” Symington said.
Accordingly, Vermont must prepare its education system to provide the necessary training for students seeking to enter the high-tech and green-energy fields, according to Symington.
“It is about engaging higher education,” Symington said. “We are a state of incredible resources in higher education.”
She cited Middlebury College as a leader in promoting environmental studies and green energy. The college has pledged to become carbon neutral by the year 2016.
Training in renewables must also be extended to carpenters, plumbers and technicians who will install green energy systems, Symington said.
“It’s not just about college education,” Symington said. “We have to make investments in workforce training. I would definitely put a focus there.”
Along with boosting educational resources, Symington said the state has to chart a more definitive, long-range energy policy. She said that in spite of the Legislature’s best efforts, lawmakers and the Douglas administration have been unable to agree on such a policy she said will be essential in planning the state’s energy needs when its contracts with Hydro-Quebec and Vermont Yankee expire in 2015 and 2012, respectively.
“We don’t have a solid energy plan,” Symington said. “I think we have to have those kinds of policies in place to be taken seriously as a home-base for (renewable energy industries).”
Vermont agriculture, Symington said, can become a major asset in helping citizens through the current energy crisis. Along with producing renewable energy crops, Symington believes local farms will be increasingly tapped for fresh, cost-effective produce that does not have to be imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
She recommended that the state work together with farmers and nonprofit organizations to develop “central distribution points” for locally grown food to cut down on transportation expenses for growers and consumers. Symington also advocated for more regional processing facilities for meat and poultry producers.
Symington said the state needs to become more serious about increasing its affordable housing stock, and doing it in a way that makes it easier to build, truly affordable and not constructed in a cookie-cutter fashion.
She supports relaxing Act 250 standards for the construction of affordable housing projects in areas designated for such use by Vermont communities.
Mobile home parks and rental housing, according to Symington, must be preserved as one of the state’s key sources of affordable housing.
“Trailer parks and mobile homes are a big part of our housing stock,” Symington said.
State officials had to make more than $20 million in budget cuts during the waning days of the 2008 session, as a result of revenue shortfalls. As governor, Symington said she realizes she would need to keep a close eye on state finances, while painting a realistic picture of how Vermont should allocate its resources.
She charged that Douglas, on the one hand has called for no new taxes, but on the other hand has passed more of a financial load onto Vermonters and municipalities through various fees and reductions in services. Symington said Douglas’s proposed fiscal year 2009 state budget included $17 million in health care cost shifts that were ultimately restored by the Legislature. She claimed that property taxes in Vermont would be $100 million higher than they are today had the past six Douglas budgets been passed unchanged while maintaining current road, school, health care and other services.
“We need to be straightforward about the budgets we present,” Symington said. “The governor’s budgets consistently come to us with the headline, ‘Sensible budget, no tax increases.’ And then, as we get into the budget, the budget does rely on tax increases, but they’re hidden … because we are simply shifting costs to the municipalities and that gets passed on to the property tax.”
She said the largest looming “budget pressure-points” will likely be in health care and transportation infrastructure.
Symington is pleased with the health care reforms Vermont has endorsed during the past few years, including the Catamount Health plan that provides basic insurance to working Vermonters. But she said health care costs continue to rise, with small businesses and the under-insured still struggling to obtain, and keep, adequate coverage.
She stressed future reforms should:
• Value the “excellent” health care services now offered in the state by 14 nonprofit hospitals.
• Not make the financial crisis in health care even worse.
“We don’t want to shift more of the responsibility onto people who already pay too much,” Symington said.
• Invest in cost containment, with an emphasis on preventing and managing chronic diseases.
THE THREE-WAY RACE
Symington has heard the political pundits say she will have a hard time prevailing in a three-way race in which Pollina is likely to siphon away some of her potential votes. She disputes that analysis, saying she will underscore her differences with Pollina and Douglas on major issues during the months ahead.
“I think it will make for three very distinct choices for the voters,” Symington said.