Vermont has a few weeks to get its wish list in order before the federal government hands out parts of a $400 billion stimulus plan to stem the national recession and prime the economic pump. Faced with thousands of layoffs in recent months throughout the state, Vermonters, no doubt, want to know what Gov. Jim Douglas and his administration are doing to ensure Vermont gets the federal help it needs to stimulate the local economy and lay the foundation for long-term growth.
Douglas was recently at the side of President-elect Barack Obama during the National Governor’s Association meeting in the nation’s capital. He said he was impressed with the President-elect’s commitment to jump-start the economy and by his pledge to help the states with funding of Medicaid and other under-funded federal programs. In a column in Sunday’s Rutland Herald, the governor noted the economic challenges Vermonters face and then — we thought — he would announce some concrete actions to move the state forward.
What we got was much ado about nothing.
“We will need to make some very difficult decisions in our state budget … as we assure the most needy are protected… To succeed will require discipline and determination, but the time is now.” It was campaign mode all over again as he said we’d have to work “across party lines,” “new partnerships would need to be built,” and that he would craft “a lean but responsible budget.”
Not a single new or specific idea was broached. Nor did he mention the recent suggestion by State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding to impose an additional 5-cent gasoline tax to support increased spending on roads and bridges, an idea seconded in a recent column by fiscally conservative president of the Ethan Allen Institute John McClaughry, who’s rarely met a tax or a government program he’s liked.
But McClaughry jumped on the gas tax bandwagon noting these facts:
• 1,200 long bridges (over 20 feet) on the state and interstate system in Vermont are past the age at which preventative repair will extend their useful life. Of those, 500 are classified as “structurally deficit” and 369 are more than 50 years old.
• The amount of paved highway rated “very poor” (21 percent) will increase to 49 percent in four years at the current rate of rehabilitation.
• One third of highway pavement surfaces are rated “poor.”
• The state’s motor fuels taxes have stayed the same since 1997, yet the cost index for highway construction has raised 10.5 percent annually since 2004 — three times the consumer price index (inflation).
• In early July, gasoline prices at the pump were $4.09 a gallon. Today the price is under $2 per gallon.
He concluded that if Vermonters want a safe and well-maintained highway and bridge system, now is the time to add more revenue. But 10 days have gone by and not a word on the issue from the governor.
Nor has the governor formed a task force to promote the projects worthy of federal funding, or gathered the state’s best and brightest together to try to garner as much of the federal funds as possible to build a “green economy” right here at home.
We’re not sure anyone at this point knows which projects will be funded and what the criteria will be required to clear the bar, but what we expect is that the competition for the funds will be tough. To that end, what Vermonters don’t need is another speech about times being tough and the need to work together. Residents know that already. It’s time to turn the page and get on with the specifics. Vermonters want to know what the state is doing to position itself for as many federal grants and subsidies as possible, and what opportunities towns have to be a part of that planning before Obama’s team starts handing out funds to those localities with projects waiting and ready to hit the start button.
Angelo S. Lynn