MONTPELIER — County lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle found something to like in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s priorities for the next two years outline in his inaugural address at the Statehouse last Thursday. The list includes universal health care, expanding high-speed Internet access and cell phone service throughout the state, no new taxes, and spurring a “renaissance in Vermont agriculture.”
“(The agenda) is big, it is ambitious, and it is achievable if we view it as our common purpose,” Shumlin said during his 35-minute speech interrupted more than 20 times by applause in a packed House chamber.
“Our obstacles are many, and our challenges are daunting,” Shumlin acknowledged. “The change we are proposing this afternoon is transformative and systemic. It will not happen quickly or easily.”
But Shumlin, frequently invoking the name of Claire Ogelsby — a childhood teacher who helped him overcome dyslexia and learn how to read — said he was confident that he, lawmakers and Vermonters would all rise to the challenges that lay before them.
“What I remember best about Claire was no matter how difficult the challenge, no matter how innovative she had to be or how hard she had to work, she never gave up on me and therefore neither did I,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin unveiled an agenda that includes:
• Sustainable state budgeting, recognizing a $150 million shortfall in the fiscal year 2012 budget and the fact that most Vermonters do not have the capacity to absorb more taxes.
“Our economic challenges are real, and so is my firm commitment to address them responsibly and swiftly — with hard, sometimes painful but sustainable choices,” Shumlin said. “There is no easy or popular path ahead.”
He said the state must focus on generating new revenues by boosting its tax base.
“We must develop a tax policy that grows our customer base and grows wealth,” Shumlin said.
“Our patchwork of broad-based taxes that have accumulated over the years, combined with overburdened property taxes, require our attention,” he added. “But let me be clear: As we tackle the difficult challenge of balancing our budget, we must not and cannot succumb to the idea that Vermonters have the capacity to pay higher taxes right now. In order to grow jobs and be more competitive with neighboring states, we must resist the temptation to raise broad-based taxes.”
• Job growth. Shumlin reiterated his belief that Vermont is well-positioned to develop jobs in the renewable energy sector.
“We will provide the brainpower, make the products, and seize the job opportunities a lower-carbon economy requires,” Shumlin said.
• “Connect VT,” an initiative to deliver by 2013 high-speed Internet access and cell service to every corner of the state.
“If not confronted, our connectivity deficit will relegate us to an economic backwater,” Shumlin said. “Vermont lags behind the developing world and ranks 46th among the 50 states in connectivity.”
Shumlin noted the state has $410 million in private, federal and bonded capital to deploy toward the expansion of broadband.
“These resources present Vermonters with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ‘initiate and cooperate’ by completing the build out of the Smart Grid, broadband and mobile phone service in a collaborative marriage of the telecommunications and electrical utility sectors to create one shared broadband infrastructure for Vermont,” he said.
• Health care reform — specifically a single-payer system (see story, Page 1).
• Education excellence, to better equip Vermont students to fill the high-tech and other jobs that are being grown in the state.
“I hereby call for an end to the war of words launched from Montpelier that pits property tax payers against our children, teachers, principals, and school board members, and invite instead a respectful conversation on how to create the best education system for our future, how to produce the best workforce for the jobs we’ve just discussed,” Shumlin said. “We take pride in Vermont’s quality education system that is the envy of the rest of the country. Let’s build upon our success by doing even better.”
• Better business conditions for farmers.
“That must include investing in processing and bottling facilities, combined with a dynamic marketing effort for Vermont quality foods that will bring our farmers the value-added price that they deserve for a hard day’s work, and they will prosper,” Shumlin said.
“The renaissance in Vermont agriculture is rooted in the growing concern by consumers across America about where and how their food is produced,” he added. “Consumers are increasingly demanding locally grown, chemical-free, high quality food. We must take Vermont’s strengths — buy local, farmers markets, farm to plate, Vermont Fresh Network restaurants — and expand our view of local to everything within 200 miles of Vermont, which includes Manhattan, Boston and Montreal.”
• Finding capital for small, emerging businesses to grow in the Green Mountain State.
“If our Green Mountain State can be recognized by young entrepreneurs as the innovative leader in financing and venture capital for micro-businesses when banks say ‘no,’ small businesses will thrive,” Shumlin said.
He specifically cited the federal EB-5 program — which offers foreign visas in exchange for investment in U.S.-based businesses — as an offering Vermont should increasingly pursue.
Shumlin noted that Bill Stenger of Jay Peak has created more than 1,000 new jobs in the highest unemployment area of the state using the EB-5 program.
Local lawmakers praised what they said was an ambitious set of priorities, and said they will now wait for more details on how the new governor will want to work with them in achieving his goals.
Shumlin said Vermont’s size will be an advantage as it looks for innovative ways to succeed. “We are too small to fail,” he said.
Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, was impressed with the first inaugural address he has witnessed as a lawmaker.
“‘High theater,” I think, describes it well,” Ralston said.
As he listed to Shumlin’s speech, Ralston said he was struck by the role that Addison County voters, and some of its residents, played in his election and policy priorities. Among those that came to Ralston’s mind were single-payer health care system advocate Ellen Oxfeld and former state Auditor Elizabeth Ready, who worked to get out the vote for Shumlin.
“You could feel their strength and their work in the room,” Ralston said. “I came into the room hopeful; I leave incredibly inspired.”
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, who has seen many inaugural addresses during her more than two decades in the House, was impressed.
“He gave us hope, he gave us energy and he gave us a commitment to help people — educationally, economically and in health care as well as agriculture, among other things,” Nuovo said. “I believe he has new ideas and a plan them work and help the people of the state of Vermont.”
Vergennes Democratic Rep. Diane Lanpher said she found the speech energizing.
“There is an enthusiasm today about where Vermont’s direction can go, but it is also tempered with the reality of the budget and what the constraints are going to be,” Lanpher said.
She added she was impressed with Shumlin’s focus on positioning Vermont to take advantage of new economic opportunities as the state pulls through the recession. At the same time, Lanpher said the state will have to be careful to take care of its most vulnerable citizens.
Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, liked Shumlin’s emphasis on job growth, containing taxes and improving the quality of public education. A former farmer, Giard was also gratified to hear the new governor talk about ways of bolstering agriculture.
“I hope now we can have a conversation now on how to move education forward, which I want to do,” Giard said.
“I really hope we can do something more for our farmers,” he added. “They work so hard and do so much; they only ask for what’s fair and we have denied them that. I hope now we have the leadership to be able to start communicating with our co-ops and with our businesses in dairy to move agriculture forward and make it prosperous.”
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, was pleased with what he considered to be the general theme of Shumlin’s speech.
“He talked about finding sustainable solutions, and then everything else fell under that,” said Smith, starting his second stint as a lawmaker representing Addison-5. “A lot of things he talked about were things we all support.”
He cited job creation, a stronger economy, more education opportunities and a renewed commitment to agriculture as Shumlin priorities that cross party lines.
“When it comes to getting these things done, the devil’s in the details,” Smith said.
Fellow Republican Rep. Greg Clark of Vergennes said he thought the new governor “set out some bold, new programs. I think it is great that (broadband) was at the top of the list, as far as getting that taken care of. He said he was shooting for 2013; I hope at some point he gives the Douglas administration some credit for getting it this far.”
Clark said he is very skeptical of the notion of a single-payer health care system, but is willing to listen to proposals for such a plan.
Clark said it will be interesting to see how Shumlin can avoid his “no new taxes” pledge in light of the new initiatives he is proposing. “I don’t see how we can do it for less money,” Clark said. “But I am willing to help him as much as I can.”
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, said he was “thrilled” to hear Shumlin make agriculture a priority. Stevens is co-owner of Golden Russet Farm and a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
“It is nice to see he is making the appointments to back up that verbiage,” he said, alluding to Chuck Ross as the new agriculture secretary and Lawrence Miller as commerce secretary.
Stevens said he appreciated Shumlin’s candor in describing the state’s challenges and economy.
“He didn’t sugarcoat things,” Stevens said. “He was brave, made a lot of promises, and we’ll have to see what comes of it.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, will play a significant role in marshaling Democrat support for the Shumlin agenda in the House. Jewett was recently elected House assistant majority leader. He said optimism in the Statehouse has been buoyed by the appointments Shumlin has made to his administration.
“I know these people personally, I know their energy and I think that’s where there is a lot of excitement about this changing of the guard after eight years,” Jewett said. “He has picked some great folks.
“It is an ambitious agenda, but that’s what (Shumlin) campaigned on,” Jewett added.
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Middlebury, called Thursday’s inauguration “a new, fresh day, with a lot of hopefulness.”
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, said he believes Shumlin unveiled an agenda the Legislature can deliver on.
“I think the (speech) is consistent with things we have articulated in the House in the last two years,” Smith said. “I think (Shumlin’s agenda) is doable. We are going to work on health care, energy, broadband, and our education infrastructure. I think all of those are critical to the economic vitality of Vermont, and I am ready to get to work.”
John Flowers is at [email protected]