MIDDLEBURY — It’s early June during an election year in Vermont, which means Gov. James Douglas should be in full campaign mode right now.
But for the first time in more than three decades, the Middlebury Republican finds himself on the sidelines of a crowded candidates’ field that he helped populate with three simple words last August: “I’m not running.”
Douglas recently sat down at the Addison Independent offices to reflect on the recently concluded Legislative session — his last in the governor’s office — his legacy, and what he might do in the future.
“When summer comes, I think I’ll have more time to think about it,” Douglas said of his legacy and his future. “But I feel good about my stewardship, and so do Vermonters, quite frankly.”
The governor and lawmakers are decompressing after what had been a brutal legislative session dominated by tough financial decisions during a political season that will stretch through Nov. 2. But in spite of the budget turmoil and politicking, Douglas gave good marks to lawmakers for the manner in which they conducted business.
“I think most people feel it was a more congenial experience,” Douglas said.
“(Legislators) realize that they made some choices last year that probably weren’t in the state’s best interest, and they reversed some of them this year,” he said, alluding to the Legislature’s reinstatement of the 40 percent exemption for business investment and its decision to roll back the changes to the estate tax.
“I think they realized that taxes matter and people make decisions on where they live and invest and we have to be competitive,” said Douglas, who called Vermont one of the few states in the union to have reduced taxes this year.
“(The executive and legislative branches) certainly had more cordial relations this year, both publicly and privately and I think that was a positive.”
Douglas concedes that his decision to take a pass on re-election might have contributed to the friendlier tone.
“They didn’t have me to whack and try to thwart,” Douglas said. “I eliminated one target from their sights.”
Devoid of the political bulls-eye on his back, Douglas said he and lawmakers were free to focus on a tough 2010 agenda that featured limited resources. Legislators began the session knowing they had a $154 million budget hole to fill. They and the Douglas administration bridged that gap in large part through cuts.
“We were more responsible than many other states who raided their reserves, raised taxes or — to my surprise — relied much more heavily on money Congress hasn’t yet appropriated,” Douglas said.
He praised human services agencies providers and their clients for absorbing the deep cuts he said were essential in order to stabilize the fiscal year 2011 budget.
“I think they recognized the reality and I think they maybe thought that scrutiny of the benefits structure in Vermont compared to other states might not be looked at favorably,” Douglas said. “Though I recommended more, the Legislature did reduce human services programs by some $30 million, but (benefits) are still generous compared to other states.”
The four-term governor was also pleased state officials were able to agree on some reforms that will return Vermont’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to a more sustainable path. Lawmakers did this primarily by boosting employers’ tax contributions to the fund, cutting benefits for some seasonal workers, and asking laid-off workers to wait an additional week before being able to access benefits.
“I think it was a balanced approach,” Douglas said.
Lawmakers and the governor didn’t see eye to eye on everything, however. As reported in the May 31 issue of the Independent, Douglas vetoed a proposed overhaul of the state’s Current Use program. He also opposed several provisions of health care bill S.88 but allowed the measure the to become law without his signature. Bill S.88, among other things, calls for a consultant to design three different health care system options (including single-payer insurance) for Vermont that could be ready for implementation by 2012. That consultant will operate under the oversight of the Vermont Health Care Commission, of which Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury, is a member.
Douglas said he appreciates the fact that S.88 advances Vermont’s “Blueprint for Health” program aimed at combating chronic diseases.
He noted the bill also establishes some targets for annual hospital budget increases (3 percent to 4 percent) that he said “will be helpful” in bringing down health care costs.
But Douglas is not pleased with other aspects of the bill — most notably, the $300,000 cost of hiring of a consultant to prepare the three health care options.
“It seems to me we’ve done an awful lot of studying of health care over the last few years, it seems to me that we don’t need another one,” Douglas said. “And there is a presumption in there that we’ll do something — if not single-payer, some new scheme in the next few years.”
Vermont would be unwise to unilaterally commit to a specific course on health care, Douglas said, because of what will soon be a phasing in of national health care policies.
“Any state-run alternative scheme couldn’t be implemented under the federal law until 2017, at the earliest,” Douglas said.
Bill S.88, according to Douglas, is a prime example of why he would like to have a line-item veto. Such a tool, he said, would allow him to excise certain provisions of bills as opposed to the “all-or-nothing” process the governor must currently follow.
“We get these multi-hundred-page things that are larded up with everything, and I have to take all or none,” Douglas said.
Douglas said he was pleased to see the state pass a renewable energy bill, one that he said rewards the state financially for power that flows across the state’s borders. That bill, coupled with a new deal with HydroQuebec, leaves Vermont well positioned to meet its electricity needs, he said.
But the governor realizes he will likely leave office with one major energy issue unresolved.
Vermont lawmakers served notice this past session that they do not favor recertifying the Vernon-based Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, owned by Entergy Corp. The plant has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons lately, with a leak of water tainted with radioactive tritium and uncertainties over the facility’s corporate ownership and decommissioning fund.
Douglas said he hopes Vermont Yankee can be recertified.
“I think the hydro-nuclear power sources are real pluses for us,” Douglas said. “There are obviously those who oppose nuclear power absolutely and will find any reason to bolster their arguments, but the fact is that tritium leaks are quite common in nuclear power plants and they just have to be monitored and controlled … We are confident that there was no threat to the public health in Vermont from what happened down there.”
Douglas acknowledged that he has been concerned about the management of the plant and Entergy’s relationship with state officials and federal regulators.
“There has to be a level of trust with any regulated entity, especially a nuclear power plant, and we haven’t had that,” Douglas said. “The question is whether Entergy can persuade the Legislature to authorize re-licensure, and I have my doubts about that. Perhaps if there were another owner or operator of the facility … it could work.”
The governor believes that while Vermont Yankee is almost 40 years old, it has been updated through the decades with newer equipment that will make it viable into the future. He said state and federal inspectors and regulators will ensure that facility does not pose a danger.
“The oversight is continual and intense,” he said of the plant.
“There is no source of energy that’s perfect or impact-free, but on balance, (nuclear energy) has a pretty good record,” Douglas added.
While he has yet to give a lot of thought to his legacy as governor, Douglas believes he will be leaving office with a good record of achievement. He spoke of regular encounters with citizens who ask him to reconsider his decision not to seek re-election. He politely declines each request, quoting friend and fellow member of the Middlebury College community John McCardell, who offered the following on his retirement as college president in 2004: “I want to leave the party when folks are still having a good time.”
Douglas said he’s happy to be “leaving the party” with the state in reasonably sound financial health.
Along with responsible financial stewardship, Douglas said he has offered some solid environmental, public safety and health care initiatives that should stand the test of time. Among them are the aforementioned “Blueprint for Health”; the “Clean and Clear” action plan through which roughly $80 million has been used to clean up Lake Champlain; the Drug Education, Treatment, Enforcement and Rehabilitation (DETER) program targeting substance abuse, calling for increased school-based counseling to recovery centers; the hiring of additional state police troopers; and the Global Commitment to Health Initiative, through which the state secured a Medicaid waiver to use its federal health care dollars in more creatively.
“I’d like to be remembered as somebody who worked hard, who spent a lot of time with Vermonters, who was out and about our state not confined to a desk, but listening and learning and doing my best to convey their priorities for legislative priorities and action in Montpelier,” Douglas said.
The governor insists he has not yet planned the next chapter in his career. He stressed he does not plan on retiring, and will entertain job offers and opportunities from the private and public sectors when his term is up.
Any future employer will have to accept the Douglas’ geographic requirement. Jim and Dorothy Douglas will continue to reside in Middlebury.
“I can’t afford to pay my property taxes unless I have some income,” he quipped.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.