MIDDLEBURY — State Sen. Doug Racine, D-Richmond, came within a few percentage points of becoming Vermont’s governor in 2002. He lost that race to current Gov. James Douglas, but is banking on being on the positive side of the voting ledger against a different field of opponents next year.
Racine, one of the first declared gubernatorial candidates for 2010, discussed his candidacy and the issues that he believes will shape the race, during a far ranging interview at the Addison Independent on Monday.
“I have a desire to serve as governor and see if I can make a real difference in Vermonters’ lives,” Racine said. “I have a real concern about the direction the state has been going … ”
Racine’s very active, ongoing life in Vermont’s political scene began in 1975, when he began a three-year stint as legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. In 1983, he was elected to the first of five consecutive terms representing Chittenden County in the Vermont Senate, serving in part on the Natural Resources Committee, Appropriations Committee and as Senate president pro tempore from 1989 to 1992.
Racine, 57, was elected lieutenant governor in 1996 and served three two-year terms before running for the state’s top executive spot in 2002. He lost a very close three-way contest that year to current Gov. James Douglas, a Middlebury Republican he was prepared to challenge again next year, and Con Hogan, who ran as an independent.
While Racine won’t face the retiring Douglas, he still faces a highly competitive Democratic primary that will include fellow state Sen. Susan Bartlett of Lamoille and Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz. Vermont Sen. President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, is also expected to throw his hat into the ring and former Sen. Matt Dunne may as well.
The winner of that primary will likely face Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, an Essex Jct. Republican, who confirmed last week he will run for governor.
“I wish I didn’t have two or three primary opponents, but I can’t control that,” Racine said. “I think it is going to be a tough race, because of the primary.”
He vowed to run a civil, issues-oriented campaign.
“I want to do what I can, as one candidate, to keep the primary campaign focused on Vermont’s future, what our plans are, and focus on the differences between myself and the presumptive Republican nominee, Brian Dubie,” Racine said. “If all of us do that, we might be able to emerge where the folks who voted for the losing candidates can actually feel comfortable helping the winning candidate.”
LOT OF WORK AHEAD
Racine realizes there will be a lot of work to do before the election, however. Having returned to the state senate in 2007, Racine has had a first-hand look at the problems the state is facing, problems he soon hopes to tackle as the Vermont’s top executive.
The next governor, Racine noted, will have to face a trend of declining state revenues and imbalanced budgets; key energy contracts set to expire; an ongoing effort to make health care more cost-efficient and accessible; and the challenge of bringing more high paying jobs to Vermont.
“The challenges have gotten more difficult; they have gotten more complex,” Racine said — too complex for what he said has been a “passive” governing approach exhibited by the Douglas administration.
He cited “job creation” as a prime example of an issue where the current administration has not been proactive enough.
“I have seen the same approaches over the past seven or eight years that had been the approaches in the Dean administration and the Snelling administration and the Kunin administration,” Racine said. “The economy is changing, but the approaches haven’t.”
Racine explained that Douglas has continued to use tax credits as his major tool in wooing and retaining businesses. He said tax credits aren’t useful for some entrepreneurs.
“(Tax credits) aren’t necessarily bad things, but they have been ignoring a lot of other sectors of the economy,” said Racine, a member of the Senate Economic Development Committee.
He said the state does not, for example, extend aid for research and development, nor can it assist businesses that are moving from product design to manufacturing. According to Racine, the state’s current aid is tailored to businesses that already have established products.
“I’ve talked to people who are doing non-traditional dairy, and whether it is in cheese or livestock… we don’t have the development programs that will assist them,” Racine said. “I talk to entrepreneurs in software and it’s the same thing; if you have intellectual property, you don’t have tangible assets to borrow against, so there is not much available for you.
“We’ve done the smokestack chasing and the big manufacturing — even the mid-sized manufacturing — but there is not much in the way of entrepreneurial support, and that’s what I think has to change,” Racine said.
Racine added that the state must take a close look at its economic development budget and prioritize the aid it gives under such headings as tourism and promotion, job training and agriculture.
“It’s probably close to $50 million to $60 million,” Racine said. “What is it we are doing in that (budget) that isn’t producing?”
It’s a question that private sector entrepreneurs ask themselves regularly, Racine noted.
“You don’t say, ‘I am not going to question what I do now,’” Racine said. “The first think I would do as governor is take a cold, hard look at what we are doing now and ask what the return is,” Racine said. “If the return is low, let’s shift that money to something else.”
Vermont must also make sure it provides a quality education through its public schools and state colleges and university to ensure a well-prepared workforce, according to Racine.
Racine said the state should take stock in its education offerings and apply resources particularly to programs that are producing results. He is a particular fan of early childhood education programs, which he believes provide a solid foundation for kids as they move up the scholastic ladder.
Faced with dwindling resources, Racine said community members need to step forward to help their schools — by pitching in as mentors or at after-school programs and other venues — rather than rely on state funding.
“My vision is that when we see a school that is struggling, we need to approach the community and not just the school,” Racine said. “It is a societal change, and (improvement) just doesn’t happen overnight.”
BALANCING THE BUDGET
A quick fix is also not likely for the state budget, according to Racine. Vermont lawmakers and Douglas spent a lot of time last session paring back millions of dollars in state services and employees to balance the books in view of a major decline in revenues brought on by the sour economy.
“I hope we have seen the worst of it,” Racine said of the recession. “But we are going to continue to have budget problems here.”
While Racine believes building a stronger economy is the long-term solution, he said the shorter-term action must be to “look at new ways to restructure state government.”
He advocated resurrecting Douglas’s “Vermont Commission on Government Efficiency.” That panel, established in 2003, recommended ways of saving taxpayer dollars through reduced overhead, increased technology and improving systems and service. Racine said the commission identified steps the state could take to save $20 million to $30 million, though neither the Legislature nor the governor took steps to implement those recommendations.
Concerning how to cut costs by reducing the number of state employees, Racine said he would “try to negotiate with state employees in a more constructive way” than the Douglas administration, in hopes of producing salary/benefit savings.
Racine said the Douglas administration rejected some concessions offered by the Vermont State Employees’ Association because the savings “would not have been long-term. I will quarrel with that definition of long-term. State employees were willing to offer furlough days. If they were willing to do it this year, they might have been willing to do it net year, and the year after that, until we got out of this.”
Racine said he would also consider what he called the “Dick Snelling approach” to dealing with the recession, which he described as a combination of budget cuts and some short-term taxes to help balance the books, but also sustain programs for the neediest Vermonters until revenues pick up with the economy. He also suggested tapping into the state’s “rainy day fund” — a savings account maintained at roughly 5 percent of the general fund budget — to help key programs weather the current recession.
HEALTH CARE/VT. YANKEE
Other issues discussed by Racine included:
• Health care. Racine, current chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said the state has been wise in expanding access to health care, but must now aggressively look at ways to contain the costs of that service.
“Business as usual isn’t working,” said Racine.
He believes a national, single-payer system may be the ticket to reducing health care costs, but added the country is not likely to get such a system “anytime soon.” Racine suggested Vermont cold serve as a “demonstration project” to gauge the success of a single-payer system for possible replication nationwide (if it works).
• Energy. Racine said he would like to see the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shut down “sooner rather than later, but I’m not sure we can do that.
“I want to find the extra power before we shut it down.”
Vermont Yankee currently supplies around one-third of the state’s power. The state’s contract with Vermont Yankee expires in 2012. Questions surrounding the safety of the plant and the status of a decommissioning fund continue to persist as lawmakers determine whether to negotiate a new pact with the plant’s owners, Entergy.
“I have no confidence in Entergy,” Racine said.