Open Letter to Vermont Legislators

As the new legislative session ramps up, I’d like to offer some thoughts. Don’t micromanage complex issues. We already have too many laws and administrative statutes, many poorly drafted, ambiguous, or conflicting. Some actually confound good behavior. Our problems can’t be enacted away. They’re substantial and demand clarity of vision, courage, and leadership. A good captain looks over the bow of his ship, not the stern, and our two-year terms for governor and legislators confine us to short-term fixes for long-term issues.

Senator Snelling is introducing legislation to move to a four-year term like the rest of the country —  except New Hampshire, which shares our fealty to the past and insouciance about the future. This issue surfaces every few years and ends up being torpedoed by nostalgic reasoning.

On June 8th last year, Governor Shumlin announced he wouldn’t run this November, setting off an election campaign that we’ll endure for 18 months of his 24-month term.

Seriously, who’s going to step up to run a vastly complex $5.5B enterprise with a two-year employment contract? Arguably, it takes the first term just to understand the system and prioritize challenges. Half way through, the leadership narrative morphs into campaign rhetoric. No wonder leaders can’t initiate complex change to solve endemic problems; they’re campaigning to retain their job. This makes no sense by any logic.

We must initiate a 4-year leadership term for governors and legislators, a two-year budgeting cycle, and a strategic planning group that watches demographic, environmental, economic, technical, and social trends, assesses and interprets data and trends for all branches of government – a look over the bow instead of the stern. Progress accelerates geometrically. Think of everything that didn’t even exist when you were a kid.

Here are some issues we face that cannot be solved with legislative and administrative tweaks.

Vermont is urbanizing like much of the world. Ghost towns are emerging around the state. Whereas many of us grew up in small communities, Vermont itself is now a community or, at least, our ten major towns are. Given this trend, we are overbuilt, over-spending, and under-delivering.

We have too many hospitals, schools, fire departments and police forces. Burlington has some ten police and fire departments within 15 miles of Church Street and, statistically, crime and fires are down over the last three decades.

Vermont has 251 School districts and 28 Union schools. The student population has been declining steadily and significantly from a high of 103,898 in 1997 to a current level of 82,523 while education costs have risen steadily. Act 46 will address some of the excess infrastructure and administration and improve equity and access for all socio-economic levels of learners, but it’s moving at a snail’s pace.

We have over 70 tiers of policing authority in law enforcement. Canada has one. Our State Police are well-trained and serve us well for the most part. We still need, however, either licensing or certification and citizen oversight for those who would protect us. The $975,000 settlement against the Rutland Police Department, if it teaches us nothing about bad policing, should at least teach us how expensive unaccountable policing will be.

1800 Vermonters are behind bars either here or in Michigan, at a cost of some $160 million dollars. Many are in jail because they suffer from the disease of addiction and have no recovery options. They either possessed drugs or have committed property crimes to sustain their addiction and are serving time for it. If Pharma were regulated and accountable for its excesses — it’s not — and treatment were available, addicts would not be jailed; they’d be in treatment, which, long term, is less expensive.

Still others are in jail for behaviors resulting from mental illness or abuse. We have almost no treatment plan for them beyond incarceration. Still others languish in prison because there is no path to socio-economic re-entry — a job, or home. Finally, we must differentiate between crimes of need and crimes of greed and acknowledge that we are complicit in the former.

Our arcane tax code no longer reflects sound principles of taxation. It’s an evolutionary document, relentlessly jiggered over the decades but never redesigned to reflect modern incomes and assets. A good tax system should do no more than fund government, dissuade bad citizen behavior and encourage good behavior. It should be comprehensible and sustainable. Ours is none of these.

Our electoral system has been sold by the judiciary to the wealthy and needs to be ransomed with public financing. We need a government ethics commission, — not as a stick, but as a carrot — a resource for administrators and legislators to consult about governance ethics and conflict management in decision making.

We should heed our Secretary of State, Jim Condos, and provide more, not less transparency in governing. The Open Meeting Law now has over 300 exemptions. What are we afraid of? Are we really as pristine as we say we are? Government derives its authority from public trust.

The enrollment and mission challenges of our State College System will not be solved unless we rethink their value and purpose in a fast changing world. They can play a vital role in education and our economy but tuition discounting and renewed marketing efforts will not sustain them. Reinvention will.

What do we do with all these savings? We invest in our children. The downstream cost of remediating damage from lack of physical, dental, and mental health care, equitable educational opportunities, poverty, hunger, homelessness, abuse, and neglect will soon overwhelm us. As the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children’s President, Rick Davis warns, we know the progression: “drop out of school, become a teen parent, require special ed services, be arrested,” — school-to-jail.

Without serious and immediate intervention, these problems become intergenerational and we lose our greatest resource for the future – our children.

In a time of increasingly finite resources, we must be open to creative destruction and the elimination of redundancy and avoid the temptation to tinker administratively and legislatively. We must turn our full attention and resources to reinventing our broken systems, both for the good of our children and ourselves.

With respect and gratitude for your hard work,

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