Election Day should be a national holiday simply to encourage as many American citizens as possible to make it to the polls and vote. Why not? Certainly it’s a more important day than, say, Columbus Day. Ideally, voters would use at least part of the day to make a final review of the candidates. Everyone knows something about the presidential race, but a good many Americans don’t know much about some of the state offices or the differences between the candidates for their state legislatures.
This could be a time, then, for individuals and families to develop a culture of making thoughtful choices, to really understand how the various candidates’ positions would affect them. Forget the sound bites and ignore all the negative attack ads on television and take the time to look at the policies side-by-side in print, comparing one candidate to the other with a scorecard on how those policies will most likely affect you.
But getting the American public to address elections as serious homework, instead of a popularity contest, aka American Idol, is a high bar to jump in this era of instant gratification and selective information, where ‘personal ideology’ has too often replaced the ‘common good’ as the driving political force that holds the country’s center.
Vermont stands apart for a couple of reasons: we’re small enough to know our elected state officials personally, and we have a tradition in Town Meeting Day of being personally involved in government. We know that government works best when voters know the issues well and get involved in finding solutions that work for the betterment of all residents.
To that end, here’s a run-down of our editorial endorsements for various state offices, plus an explanatory editorial that sets the record straight on a minor matter (underfunded liabilities of two state pensions) that has become an issue in a few local races and the race for state treasurer, and an endorsement of Bristol’s town plan. We’ll endorse a few others in Monday’s issue.
Shumlin for Governor
When Peter Shumlin ran for governor two years ago, he pledged to get tough things done. In those two years, he’s tackled some pretty big issues and made a good start on fulfilling his pledge.
That list includes: keeping a balanced budget without raising taxes; helping pass a measure to make the education department an agency and include the secretary of education as a member of his cabinet (thus making the governor more directly accountable for the performance of the state school system); and passing the first phrase of a health care reform.
He also effectively led the state through the devastating aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, encouraging Vermonters to pull together while also rebuilding the infrastructure stronger to be able to better handle future storms. And he promoted a merger of the state’s utilities and stood behind the state’s Public Service Board and Public Service Department in its decisions on how to do that, even though the Legislature was largely opposed to some provisions.
As Governor, he has the moxie to tackle the tough issues head-on and seek commonsense solutions. Most recently, he also directed his administration to find a way to proceed with the western rail corridor. Rather than wait for a federal grant that hasn’t come for the past two decades, as previous administrations had done, Shumlin and his team declared the western rail corridor from Rutland to Burlington a priority. To accomplish the job, they simply dedicated money within the transportation budget (while continuing to seek federal grants) and set 2017 for its completion date.
That’s the kind of take-charge leadership that makes Gov. Peter Shumlin the right man for the job for the next two years.
But the honeymoon is over. In the next biennium he has much to prove and deliver. Foremost is how he proceeds with plans to reform the state’s health care system. To date he has kept mum on how he will finance the system, how much it might cost, and how he’ll have to tweak the current system to produce needed savings while expanding health insurance to more Vermonters. Early signs are that smaller hospitals, perhaps like Porter in Middlebury, will be in the crosshairs of a movement to consolidate services at the larger regional hospitals. That should rightly produce outrage and opposition from residents of those communities, which represent the vast majority of the state’s geographic area. If pursued at the expense of these smaller hospitals, it is a battle in the making and could prompt enough opposition to derail plans for reform.
Similarly, the governor’s push for renewable energy, particularly wind, may have been too hard, too far, too soon. He has more recently softened his stance and recommended a committee take up questions around wind-energy production to see if a less controversial game plan could be pursued, but it’s also a battle on the near horizon.
That said, Gov. Shumlin is addressing the tough issues forthrightly, is managing the day-to-day affairs with competence and optimism, and is moving the state forward on numerous fronts. He deserves Vermonters’ support for a second term.
Phil Scott for Lt. Governor
For a candidate holding statewide office, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott fulfills the notion as “a man of the people” as well any politician you’re likely to meet. He’s personable, generous, knows the trials and tribulations of small business and has a commonsense approach to politics that can be summed up as: we may need to compromise, but let’s figure out the best way to get things done.
Plus, he’s an avid bicyclist and races cars. Anyone who pursues those two sports, and loves both, has a broad enough spectrum to champion most facets of Vermont’s many assets as well as trouble-shoot problems and propose solutions.
Scott also has a role to play as one of the leaders of the opposition party. Particularly on issues concerning energy and health care reform, the Democratic-controlled Legislature needs the occasional pushback to slow down the train and make sure the state proceeds in a thoughtful direction.
Casandra Gekas says all the right things as a Democrat, but Scott’s fair play and non-partisan approach in the office serves the state well and earns him another two-year term.
Bill Sorrell for Attorney General
This election year has proved difficult for seven-term incumbent Bill Sorrell, who barely escaped a primary battle with TJ Donovan and is now facing a well-financed challenge from Republican Jack McMullen as well as the articulate Progressive Ed Stanak.
Of the three candidates, Sorrell’s hands-on experience makes him the preferred choice in this election. This year’s race, however, should send a not-so-subtle warning that his passive approach to the job is under fire and his passive approach to fighting crime makes him a target in future races if he doesn’t take the hint.
Illuzzi versus Hoffer for State Auditor
Republican Vince Illuzzi has garnered much support from a lot of politicos throughout the state, which may tell you something. Throughout his 32 years in the Legislature he has made a lot of friends and has played the game of politics well. But while Vermont is largely free from the political partisanship that plagues other states, Illuzzi does understand political power and has wielded that power, at times, for partisan purposes over the years. That’s an attribute that doesn’t work well in the state auditor’s office.
Democrat Doug Hoffer, on the other hand, is not someone you’d call a team player. He is, by his own admission, “a number’s guy,” and that can work for or against either side of the political aisle. That’s a good attribute as an auditor. Hoffer, however, is hamstrung by his ideological outlook. He’s a devout progressive and comes as close to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ political leanings as any other statewide candidate on the ballot. That’s not a great attribute when asked to run the numbers on potential programs that inevitably have a political bent — and numbers, as we all know, can be used and abused at will.
Nonetheless, Hoffer does have the support of Gov. Shumlin, an important endorsement, and Sen. Sanders.
Both candidates have the state’s best interest at heart, are honest and hardworking, but neither are perfect candidates for the job. You choose.
Pearce for State Treasurer
We previously endorsed Democrat Beth Pearce for state treasurer over Republican challenger Wendy Wilton. (See editorial on Oct. 29.) Briefly, we did so because Pearce has far more experience, knows what the job is and how she can best carry out those functions to the state’s benefit, and has the personal integrity to ensure the state’s bonds get the highest ratings and the state pensions are managed intelligently.
Republican Wilton, on the other hand, has carried out a dubious campaign based on erroneous and misleading attacks almost wholly financed through a conservative political action group. Wilton could have accepted the money and run an above-board campaign that talked about the challenges of the job and what she would do as state treasurer, but she has not. Rather, in the style of the national Republican Party, she has instead chosen to smear her opponent, while offering very little to suggest why she would be the better candidate. Her campaign has been a disservice to the state.
Pearce, who has been state treasurer for the past two years since former State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding stepped down to work in the administration, has the enthusiastic support of Gov. Peter Shumlin and Spaulding. Vermont voters should not hesitate to endorse her as well.
On a side note, this election has been made close by the conservative PAC, Vermonters First, which has funneled more than $160,000 into Wilton’s campaign, including a single television ad buy of $70,000, but also including numerous direct mail solicitations. That’s enormous for the state treasurer’s race and is beyond the pale.
But it opens an opportunity for Progressive candidate Don Schramm, who could play a potentially game-changing role in the race by endorsing Democrat Pearce and encouraging his supporters to vote for her. The most damaging role Schramm could play is being the spoiler (a role Progressive Anthony Pollina played to no good end for many years), taking just enough votes away from Pearce to allow Wilton to win.
Schramm could do the Progressive Party a favor by avoiding the spoiler stigma in statewide races, and helping re-define his party as something other than the problem child of the liberal left. It might boost Schramm’s political future as well.
Explanation of unfunded pension liabilities
In the state treasurer’s race, and in some state legislative races, much has been made of the roughly $1.2 billion in unfunded liabilities in two state pension funds and the $1.8 billion in unfunded liabilities associated with health care benefits for retired teachers, which is currently paid out of the state teachers’ pension fund.
The most misleading allegations are that this is a crisis that has been mismanaged or swept under the carpet.
Certainly, it is an issue of concern. But it has not been swept under the carpet and the Great Recession has caused the shortfall, not mismanagement. The facts are these:
• As of June 30, 2011, the state employee’s pension fund had an actuarial value of $1.349 billion and actuarial liabilities of $1.695 billion. Its funding-to-liability ratio is 80 percent, just barely meeting the state’s standard. The teachers’ pension fund had an actuarial value of $1.487 billion and liabilities of $2.332 billion, setting a more troubling funding-to-liability ratio of 64 percent.
• Combined the funds had millions in surplus before the Great Recession and the liability-to-debt ratio was 100 percent and 91 percent respectively, but like other funds throughout the nation, those huge portfolios suffered big losses in 2008-09. The liabilities, however, are not current — in other words, are not due any time soon — but rather stretch out over the next 30 years. Legislative committees have been working to close that gap in funding with the state employees and teachers; a plan is in place to make up for those unfunded liabilities in 25 years. One can agree or disagree with that plan, but it is being addressed.
More pressing is the unfunded liability incurred when paying for retired teacher health benefits, which have been reported at $1.8 billion, while legislative reports put it at $1.6 billion. Whichever, it’s a lot of money and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed in the next biennium. The shortfall, again, has largely been caused by previous decisions in the Legislature that did not project of cost of health care to rise so dramatically and so consistently.
Most importantly, this is not a partisan issue. Both Democrats and Republicans have been diligent in their efforts to close the funding gap created by the recession, and both have been dancing around the issue of how to cover the cost of health care — an issue that bedevils us all.
Vote Yes on Bristol’s Town Plan
On the whole, this is a town plan Bristol residents should support by voting yes. We congratulate the Planning Commission and the Bristol selectboard for working through a litany of issues over the past two years and, after eight years and a rejection of the previous town plan, proposing a plan the public can support.
Kudos also go to the opponents of the previous town plan and of a proposed gravel pit that would have compromised the quality of life for many who live in the village while benefitting few other than the owners. Nor was the battle over the rights of the property owner, but rather over loosely written language in the prior plan that only the most biased could reasonably argue was meant to work against the vast majority of town residents.
The key issue was prohibiting gravel extraction within zones that would have compromised the village center. This plan addresses that issue and clearly establishes more appropriate policies for such land use. (See story on Page 1A.)
But the plan is much more than setting intelligent boundaries for gravel extraction. It also encompasses how the town of Bristol wants to grow, balanced by policies that help define what the community wants to hold dear. In that regard, it protects town traditions while encouraging economic growth and is a well-considered and thorough document that is a significant improvement over the current plan.
In sum, Bristol residents can consider this multi-year effort well worth the hard-fought struggle.
Angelo S. Lynn