Vermont’s Next Governor – Why It Matters

The national media’s rife with bread-and-circus candidates of every ideological stripe and I.Q. and that’s gotten me thinking about what I’ll want to see in Vermont’s next governor.

There are always two narratives, the one you must use to get elected and the one you use to actually govern. The former is filled with platitudes about high taxes, jobs, gun rights, and the economy. The latter is the one that voters should really care about – and it doesn’t lend itself to the facile soundbytes we’ve come to expect in debates and media spots. Our problems are too complex and deeply entrenched in our past.

Here a few areas needing attention:

• We must keep up our redesign of the organization and cost of public education while respecting it as a fundamental right. We could start by retiring the dismal term “childcare” and renaming it “education,” integrating it into our school systems and infrastructure. We might also re-engineer the transition from the last wasted year of high school into the first remedial year of college and keep more Vermont kids from falling through that crack.

• We need to stay the course in healthcare reform, even as we debate whether it should become a right or remain a privilege. And if we decide health care is a right, explore whether it can really accommodate the profit motive.

• We have to find a way to invert our $152M investment in incarceration and our $88M investment in higher education to build a more secure and productive society. If the mission of corrections is indeed to safely return offenders to a productive role in society, it won’t be enough to just try to store them more cheaply.

• We must ask ourselves whether we can really afford six publicly funded state colleges and, if we can’t, how to preserve the economic and educational contribution all six make to our state and the communities they inhabit. Differentiating between education and workforce training, we could partner with business to pioneer a new higher ed. model that serves the needs of both and prepares students for Vermont jobs that go unfilled. Overbuilt campuses might also become community magnets for local problem-solving and life-long learning.

• We must begin a cross-sector dialogue between the business, non-profit and government silos with an eye towards consolidating shrinking resources and prioritizing Vermont’s enduring social and economic problems like homelessness, hunger, unemployment, and addiction. If we’re serious about making a dent in these dismal metrics that currently consume half our state budget, we’ll have to combine and share cross-sector forces and resources, measure results, and engage those we’re trying to help in the dialog.

Our most intractable problems exist inside old and complex systems. Feel-good candidates with easy answers are false prophets. Our next governor must bring together diverse voices and resources to elicit new ideas and engineer new systems to make progress. It won’t be easy. We’re going to need to think beyond ourselves and our immediate interests and ask tough questions.

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