Vermont Leaning Forward: The Vermont Problem – Solutions Wiki
“We have moved from a relatively slow pace of change to an exponential rate. The rate of technological change is estimated to double every decade. Thus, so much is happening so fast in every part of the world, we no longer have any frame of reference within which to understand contemporary events. Life has become a passing blur. Thus, leaders lack any larger order of purpose and significance, any guiding narrative that transcends short-term objectives and might offer common purpose to disparate cultures.” –Van Wishard, “Major Trends Shaping our World.”
We’re convinced that with foresight and informed consideration Vermont can create, implement, and even export solutions. But frantic, reactive legislation and policy proposals that ignore impacts on Vermonters, their real-life stories and the economic, social, environmental and demographic trends that affect us all, only increase complexity and cost.
Vermont Leaning Forward will provide a frame of reference to help citizens, leaders, and administrators better understand the rising dysfunction threatening our way of life and offer a decision-making framework that reconciles our long-held values with future trends and short-term exigencies. This might well take the form of an open website available to all to suggest solutions by category that would be curated and added to the solution matrix for consideration by leaders and the three government branches.
Vermonters are increasingly disconnected from the reasoning behind, and decisions of their government and Vermont government bodies are increasingly disconnected from the lives of real Vermonters. Blindered by budget constraints, politics, and the urgency of now, there is a tendency to relentlessly enact new and often contradictory law. Since the Snelling administration, Vermont has not invested in strategic planning and the deliberations of many legislative commissions rarely make it into policy. So, of necessity, we govern over the stern of the ship-of-state.
We all need to step back together, lay down our partisan arms and look seriously at the future. It’s vital that Vermonters both understand and have input into the larger issues and decisions that affect their daily lives.
How we understand the future and our existing complex systems affects the quality of our discussion about them, as well as any agreements we might make toward progress. Too often, we’re myopic, imagining that decisions we make in Vermont are the sole determinant of outcomes, when in fact our geographic boundaries mean less and less. As a friend recently pointed out, the decision by the Saud royal family to sell Aramco may have a greater impact on Vermont than all our energy management efforts combined. We are buffeted by regional, national, and global winds that have more impact on us than we acknowledge. We’re 620,000 people living on 10,000 square miles. To make progress on the challenges presented by Vermont’s complex systems, we’ll need to remember we exist and interact in a larger social, cultural, legal, economic, and ecological universe. That cognitive humility will help us make wiser and more effective plans.
Also, we’ll have to abandon or at least question our long-held mythologies and acknowledge the relentless reality of change: If we market Vermont more effectively people will come. Economic development, lower taxes, and less regulation will create jobs. More laws will make us safer and so on…
Beyond trusted leadership’s bully pulpit, the only tool sets of government are financial (taxing and budget authority), legislative and regulatory (making new laws and regulations) and judicial, (interpreting existing law), whereas many of our problems are beyond the reach of these tools – culture, technology, federal policy, macroeconomics, environment etc.
But a crafts person uses what they have at hand, so our complex and dated legacy systems are relentlessly tweaked to try and address the latest challenge. Many of our laws and regulations now on the books set up legal or administrative conflicts that defy their intent. To further complicate matters, our shortsighted two-year leadership terms defy any long-term goal setting and accountability and further propel the turnstile of agency leadership. With no strategic planning resource our executive and legislative arms must govern without context, data, or trend analysis. How can we set future goals if we have no glimpse of what the future might bring? A resource that studies economic, social, demographic, commercial, environmental, medical, and commerce-related trends would give our leaders and law-givers a weather report on Vermont’s future. Today, we have nothing.
The complex systems, that have evolved over decades, are wearing out and breaking down in the face of accelerating change. The legislature reacts reflexively to acute breakdowns rather than asking the bigger question of whether chronic breakdowns might indicate systemic failure. We patch rather than reconsider and redesign, ballooning our costs as we evade the reality of change. As one former legislator noted, “Politics does not reward vision and change.” The $200 million spent in a failed enterprise-level healthcare transaction management system is one often-cited example. The 40% of Vermont’s budget we spend on Human Services to remediate the basic social and economic injustices with which we live could be much better spent upstream.
A Look at Vermont’s Complex Systems & Challenges
- Economic Development: There are many moving parts to economic development. Presently, Vermont spreads those needs across various constituencies. To be successful, they will need to be reorganized under one comprehensive office with a clear mission and sole authorization –including the management of the funding steams such as VEDA, VEGI , and the like that support grants and loans.
Unfortunately, the legislature also allocates what little there is of its funding for all economic development activities over the regional development authorities, the industrial development authorities, and county development groups. This dispersal of assets dissuades strategic initiative, focus and mission, and diminishes overall results. With the exception of very recent actions by the ACCD, overall results have been marginal. Economic development is a potent political catchphrase but in reality, has contributed little to Vermont’s growth for decades.
Successful economic development programs are by their very nature complex, have low visibility, and require longer gestation periods. Using a smaller, independent and highly focused group of non-political professionals, we could refocus and articulate the underlying fundamentals of a new strategy. This should be a non-governmental agency with skilled but apolitical leadership, a clear organizational chart, and declared accountability measures and sole responsibility for economic improvement – in essence returning to the basic fundamentals of the craft and not on feel-good approaches that fail to bring meaningful results.
If we’ve learned nothing more from the recent EB-5 fiasco, political appointees, as a general rule, rarely provide competent leadership. In the past ten years or so, there’s also been directives given to outside committees and consultants to develop strategies to bring greater responsiveness to economic opportunities – efforts then gobbled up by competing economic development interests as these various factions seek to protect their turf.
A new quasi-governmental agency would replace all existing programs and have sole responsibility and accountability for economic development efforts and be managed by a professional with requisite experience and support staff. Not all opportunities are equal or readily apparent. Business development executives know that a sustained and proactive approach to growth opportunities brings success. In the current economic climate where competing states have focused approaches to bring new business into their economies, Vermont’s been on the sideline. Economic development in the new age will not just be about low taxes and deregulation. Most new businesses will accept taxes that enhance the economies and markets in which they and their employees live and work if they’re regionally competitive. They also want rules of the game that are principle-based, not mercurial, to enable long term business planning.
To that end, a new agency would categorize and index Vermont’s current businesses into related groups to better understand their underlying challenges, trends, and growth needs. The Public Assets Institute, recently presented data showing that most growth does indeed come from our current business community. But if Vermont is to ever have meaningful job growth, it will need to come from new business and markets as well.
The University of Vermont is the premier basic research institution in Vermont. A future Economic Development authority would collaborate with UVM’s various advanced scientific disciplines to help them bring new technologies to market, either independently or through existing enterprises here. The Rubenstein School and the UVM Medical School both have deep experience in intellectual property transfer in the service of new business development. Such a partnership will enhance the continuum from research to intellectual property transfer management and new business development.
Such a change will be a radical move for state government. The Governor and the legislature need to stop reassuring Vermonter’s that “all is well” when they know full well the existing system has been a failure from an organizational and performance perspective.
Economic development is now a top executive priority, but this will need to go beyond the simple “affordability agenda,” which is retrospective rather than prospective. The executive branch will need to take the lead rationalizing and championing such organizational change, while articulating why it is imperative for Vermont’s economic future. Without executive branch support, our state will continue to be an “also ran” to the detriment of all Vermonters across the economic spectrum. Until significant organizational changes are made, economic development will continue to be a slogan rather than a reality.
- The traditional economic development “tool kit” is empty. What do emerging companies really want? Low taxes and deregulation or a healthy socioeconomic environment with good housing, education, recreation, healthcare, and participatory options for their employees?
- Consumer (tourism) – focus on niche tourism, cultural, eco-, agri-tourism, wild game, canoeing, cycling, climbing, hiking, history etc. Enhance Tourism and Marketing website to add story, create participatory experience, and add links to partners.
- Criminal Justice & Corrections:
Criminal Justice System:
- Appoint (not elect) prosecutors, reduce overly aggressive county prosecution.
- Reduce # of law enforcement categories from 64 to 3. Implement citizen oversight council.
- Reorganize the underfunded, poorly managed public defender system. 70% of Vermont court cases are pro se.
- Legislature: criminalizing too many behaviors in new proscriptive laws. Administrative statutes are often fueling re-incarceration.
- Mission should be to return offenders to society as safely and as rapidly as possible. Current cost is disproportionate to poor recidivist outcomes.
- Has become surrogate holding facility for the addicted and mental health patients – both health issues, not criminal.
- No longer any need for the CRCF women’s prison in So. Burlington. Close it down or remake it into a transitional shelter with support and training.
- Expand restorative justice, circles of support and accountability, and court diversion options in lieu of prison. Retrain judges on alternatives to incarceration.
- Forge an offender re-entry path back to family, community, housing, and economic independence. (see 5 a)
- Corrections Problem Statement Data:
- Vermont’s incarcerated population has increased by over 300% since 1974 now 1,600 individuals, while the general population has increased by just 35%.
- Over 350 incarcerated Vermonters are pre-trial detainees and every day roughly 140 who are otherwise eligible for release are held for lack of “approved” housing.
- Vermont’s incarcerated population has exceeded capacity for more than 15 years, and approximately 160 inmates are currently housed in an out-of-state prison in Mississippi.
- 90-95% of Vermont’s incarcerated population will eventually be released into the community. At this time, more than 6,000 children in Vermont are affected by a parent’s incarceration.
- Inflation-adjusted corrections spending has increased by over 450% since FY75, while inflation-adjusted state spending generally over the same period has increased by about 250%. It costs nearly $50,000 annually for each man incarcerated in Vermont (and $85,000 to incarcerate a woman).
- The rate of violent crime nationally has dropped 50% in last 20 years. Vermont’s rate of violent crime is approximately 1/3 of the national average.
- Opportunity Statement:
Vermont spends $158M on corrections and $88M on higher ed. We are unlikely to increase our higher ed budget even though four of our six state colleges are struggling with lower admissions revenue and are having to cut curriculum. In time, Vermont could lower its disproportionate corrections expense and address the fiscal stress on one or two of its state colleges by implementing a secure “Re-entry Curriculum”
As a test, we might take the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (the So. Burlington jail/prison for women), which costs Corrections $85K per woman per year and houses very few violent offenders presenting a danger to society. Many are mothers, adding substantial social and economic costs to the human services system.
Top college tuition and fees for the Vt. State Colleges is $11K a year. An admissions board composed of corrections, education, mental health, law enforcement, and addiction recovery specialists would vet each “educational diversion” applicant. Each enrollee would be required to sign a “personal responsibility” contract, clarifying the terms of enrollment and attesting to the offender’s commitment.
- Prospective Solution Data:
We could reallocate the $85,000 this way:
$11,000 tuition to Northern VT University. (top in-state rate)
$4,000 tuition enhancement to Northern VT to develop and manage curriculum
$20,000 living stipend to the program participant
$5,000 annual stipend for a personal mentor
$3,000 admin fee to manage program and fund weekly drug testing and counselling
Total Cost: $43,000
Total Eventual Savings: $42,000 / inmate /year.
The “Path to Re-entry Curriculum” might well enrich conventional curricula at the State Colleges. The goal is to create a successful “path to re-entry” and invert our investments in corrections and higher ed. See: Bard College Prison Initiative: http://bpi.bard.edu/commencement-video/ or
https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/559527 Walla Walla College (WA) educates prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary (recidivism rate 3%) and Coyote Ridge Correctional Center (recidivism rate 0%). Inmates learn trades which have plenty of demand for workers, like auto repairs or HVAC maintenance. By teaching them marketable skills and workplace behaviors, the school gives them a fighting chance at a job, once they’re released. All of which means there’s less chance they will end up back in prison.
- Gubernatorial & Legislative Terms – move to 4-year terms.
- Ethics – establish an independent Ethics Commission (there is none).
- Transparency – reduce public meeting exemptions and make transparency and openness the norm rather than the exception.
- Strategic Planning. The State must look ahead at what is coming not backward to see what might need fixing. Establish by appointment a diverse strategic planning group of 11 women and men (honorarium) with secretary/office support. Appointments to be shared by three branches of government and should draw on the business, non-profit, and policy development sectors.
- Board roles and responsibility – to many VT Non-profit boards have little or no understanding of their roles and responsibilities. Support governance and accountability training for mission-driven boards.
- Redundancy – too many non-profits are competing for limited government contracts and philanthropy rather than collaborating to accomplish missions. Differentiate between mission-driven and ego-driven organizations.
- New philanthropy is requiring non-profits to collaborate rather than compete.
- Accountability to Mission – inadequate mission alignment between budgeting, staffing, and programming.
- Regulation – business needs strategic regulation, not micro-management or deregulation. Focus on outcome regulation.
- Taxation – Business taxes strategy needs review.
- Vermont State College System: (UVM, VSAC and the four state colleges)
- Should we redesign Northern VT and Castleton and make them into regional economic hubs in partnership with area businesses and non-profits?
- Can Northern VT become a regional acculturation center for New Americans in partnership with business? a curriculum that welcomes immigrants and refugees into Vermont’s shrinking population and anxious business community by setting up a specialized curriculum that teaches our language and culture, and provides basic employment skills as well as the fundamentals of civics, American history, and science – all designed by their future professors, employers, and resettlement professionals.
- Can one or two of the colleges help forge a path to re-entry for non-violent offenders? (see #3 Corrections)
- Sustain and invest in VT Tech and CCV. UVM will ultimately go private, while sustaining its commitment to Vermont students.
- Can we reduce student tuition costs by reducing residency requirements and reparsing pedagogical methods online?
- Should we be discussing:
- free or means tested state tuition
- first two-years free tuition
- contingent student debt forgiveness?
- Is tenure still relevant since teachers are protected in statute against wrongful discharge?
- State and Local government official ethical lapses:
- Establish and fund a real Ethics Commission with investigative and enforcement powers
- Dairy Collapse:
Agriculture is not dying in Vermont; it’s evolving, maybe even in ways that will benefit our landscape, waterways, and diets. Today, fluid milk is used just for cereal, coffee, and some cooking. Cheese, yogurt, and ice cream use a considerable amount, but the lion’s share – and least profitable share – goes into powder for food processing or export, and, according to Bloomberg, 23.6 million pounds of milk were dumped in July of last year alone.
Industrial dairy is dying. Riddled with oversupply, perverse financial incentives, and plagued by implacable fertilizer and manure run-off problems that destroy our water systems, large-scale dairy’s future prospects are dim. Vermont lost 66 dairy farms last year and more are on the edge. The good news is that smaller-scale diversified ag is growing and thriving in Vermont. Fallow dairy farms, the development rights of which have been sold, are being bought up by young farmers committed to small-scale local agriculture and stewardship of the land. Truck and flock farmers, orchardists, grass-fed beef farmers, hemp and marijuana growers are turning modest but steady profits from their new farms. Avoiding monocropping they diversify their operations to include logging, sugaring, custom brewing, and agritourism, often avoiding two-tier distribution and by selling at retail directly to their neighbors. Vermont’s working landscape is less at risk with this new crop of small-scale farmers than it has been with the relentlessly expanding herds of industrial scale monocropping dairy operations. Animal husbandry more closely reflects nature’s way than the factory farms. Hormones, medicated feed, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides are unnecessary when animals graze on fresh grass.
A few large and small-scale dairy operations will survive the milk market’s shrinkage because milk is fundamental to our food supply. But our soils and riverine drainage systems will all be healthier for the reduced scale and added diversity that new agriculture brings.
- Public Education: Quality, Equity, Cost, Access and Administrative and Infrastructure Efficiency
- Cost for outcomes inadequate – most expensive in world.
- Is it “education” or “child-management” with 760 special ed professionals and 3200 teachers in kindergarten through elementary school?
- Do we need 250 school districts and 62 supervisory unions for 80,000 students?
- Eliminate the term and concept of “child care” and call it what it is “public education.” Avoid another silo to regulate childcare. Currently child care and public education are regulated by different agencies, Human services and the Dept of Education. Reinvent public education to integrate child care from birth on.
- Abandon vouchers which further privilege the upper classes
- Health Care: Quality, Cost, Network infrastructure, and access: Ageing & Dying, Chronic Disease Management, Mental Health Care, Addiction Treatment
- Focus on/invest upstream in Population Health. Reduce ER visits by investing upstream in adverse experiences such as homelessness, malnutrition, addiction, abuse etc.
- Cost for outcomes inadequate and highly classist, most expensive in world.
- Stranded cost of failed Health-Connect initiative vastly exceeded entire Vermont budget shortfall for 2016.
- Need to engage in creative destruction or repurposing to reduce the number of competitive hospitals, while increasing the number of primary care clinics. Need to increase number of primary care, pediatric and geriatric practitioners.
- Need to redesign provider compensation and radically reduce transactional costs. (i.e. denial management)
- We need regulated open architecture in electronic medical records (EMR) to reduce cost and enhance utility
- We need to eliminate for-profit insurance and move to a regulated ROI monopoly such as VT BC/BS
- Pharma must be re-regulated nationally for both quality, price, access, and consumer marketing.
- Need to better educate doctors and patients about end-of-life options that don’t automatically involve “heroic measures”: require advance directives, expand palliative care, in-home hospice, and death-with-dignity
- Need to increase public mental health treatment infrastructure and options.
- Need to increase addiction treatment infrastructure and options.
- Need to implement less addictive pain management drugs and monitor noncompliance (“Dr. Feelgoods”)
- Need to eliminate the “guild mentality” of dentists protecting their franchise and force them into mainstream healthcare where they belong.
- Social Safety Net: We must integrate our siloed approach. We tend to address issues such as homelessness, youth-at-risk, child protection, hunger and malnutrition, step-up, workforce training, addiction services (prevention and recovery) as unique crises rather than in the greater context of “families at risk.”
- Government Sector: Don’t reparse the Human Services Agency into dysfunctional silos.
- Better integrate efforts between the government, non-profit, and business sectors to work together to solve problem rather than competing for solutions.
- Non-Profit Contracting: Competition vs. Collaboration, Results-based State Contracting, & Philanthropic education about needs and accountability.
- Affordable Housing: Reprioritize regulatory restrictions to reflect urgency of need. Invest in more co-housing.
- Child Hunger/Nutrition Means-tested 3 meals/day in public schools (see 8.)
- Negative Demographic Trends: Develop a plan to acculturate and welcome new Americans (see also State Colleges 5.B)
- Child abuse/neglect Redesign DCF guidelines for termination of parental rights
Problem Statement: A new report by the Vermont Parent Representation Center raises disturbing findings. It ranks Vermont second in the nation for termination of parental rights for very young children. The hundred-plus page report backs up its disturbing allegations with hard data, both from the State and from work with some 450 families. It asserts that “the State appears largely incapable of distinguishing between families where the children are abused or neglected and the much larger pool of families who simply need assistance and support.” The report documents an apparent system-wide breakdown, with Department of Children and Families (DCF) documentation frequently being deficient and neither prosecutors nor public defenders having the time or resources to validate this information. Adjudication discovery is often ill-informed, leaving the courts equally ill-informed to make determinations that both protect the child and respect the rights of parents. Court proceedings can be a rotating door of attorneys, judges, and DCF workers, few of whom actually know the families involved. The report goes on to say that “children too often remain in custody needlessly and for extended periods while enduring multiple foster care placements.” But the report also details some eighty low or no-cost recommendations to better balance child protection and parental rights. Children must be protected from abuse and neglect, but we should take care not to needlessly disrupt or destroy families in the process. And simply redirecting scarce resources from the adjudication phase of child protection to the front-end family support phase would be a far more effective and efficient way to protect Vermont’s children and strengthen their families.
- Public Safety: Police, Fire and Emergency Services, Firearm Regulation
- We have nine independent police forces and fire departments within 15 miles of downtown Burlington without central dispatch. Is this cost effective?
- We have over 60 levels of police hierarchy in VT and little or no citizen oversight. It is virtually impossible to decertify a corrupt or under-performing policeman. Is this effective or accountable management? Police licensing, citizen oversight?
- Can we create a firearm policy that encourages hunting, discourages violent crime, abuse, suicide, and carriage by those with mental health issues? Do police departments or hunters want or need military weapons?
- Are our traditional volunteer and professional fire response and safety infrastructures appropriate to the 70% reduction in residential fires since 1965?
- Vermont Tax Code and Fee Structure:
Considerations: Revisit 2008 recommendations, simplify and make principle-based
- Fairness – Is it fair to all individuals and businesses?
- Competitiveness – Does it negatively impact competiveness?
- Simplicity – Is it comprehensible and useable by non-professional filers?
- Transparency – Is the code and its rationale accessible to all?
- Neutrality – Is it policy-neutral, or does it dissuade and incent behaviors?
- Interoperability – does it mesh with other tax domains i.e. federal?
- Sustainability – does it produce adequate revenue on a sustained basis to fund government?
- Executive and Legislative Accountability to Taxpayers – do legislators and tax department officials periodically review the code to ensure current relevance to original intent, especially with regard to “tax expenditures” and “carve-outs?”
- Compliance & Enforcement – is it consistently and fairly applied and enforced?
- Environmental Protection:
- Water Quality – diminishing rapidly, needs real time monitoring. (see 7) diversified ag strategy that minimizes pesticide, fertilizer, hormones and monocropping
- Invasive species may not be controllable
- Wildlife Management pretty good it would seem given habitat growth.
- Waste Management – reduce source packaging and put recycling cost burden on manufacturers. Eliminate all single-use plastic packaging current Senate Bill S.113
- Road and bridge Infrastructure – no more room for “deferred maintenance”
- Public Transportation: bus, rail, and air – mix needs reanalysis
- Consumer: Cars, cycling, walking – public fleets in urban areas? Feasible rural van/light rail options, incent electric vehicles / ride and car sharing
- Communications Infrastructure: Broadband, Telecom, Satellite, Terrestrial Broadcast, Cable – Public and Private Systems
- Consumer content moving to Internet streaming away from terrestrial broadcast, cable and satellite and terrestrial broadcast spectrum being re-allocated more efficiently.
- Confusion in the consumer/wholesale relationships and pricing
- Net neutrality policy still under debate and intense lobbying and regulation over affected by industry
- Broadband build out is progressing but using new local technology needs a plan for financing and completion.
- Frames through which we present / learn: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom, and Story:
- Fact-based data – numeric and graphic
- Information -–distilled from data
- Knowledge – distilled from information enriched by experience
- Wisdom – derives from knowledge tempered with age plus experience
- Communication formats for above: essay and story