Vermont: Reactive or Reactionary?

To our detriment, we’re largely a reactive state.

Our ship of state is captained from the stern. We scan our wake for bad signs. A corpse floats by… we need a law. A raw sewage dump or fish-kill fouls our wake… we need a law. A power boat swamps a canoe… we need a law. The water doesn’t freeze in February… we need a law.

We’re neither strategic nor preemptive. We appoint commissions. We study things. And when and if we finally act, we overlook the connected nature of our problems, and so our “solutions” are too narrowly focused and generate unintended consequences on which we pile new legislation.

The last government strategic planning resource in Montpelier was inaugurated by  Governor Snelling but then phased out by a succeeding administration in a “cost-saving” effort.

To have a yearly budget of over $7 billion that is not based on ongoing, institutionalized strategic planning would be unimaginable in any $7.2B business with some 8000 employees.

Likewise, our two-year term for leadership positions is a longstanding joke. Almost twenty years ago, I was invited, as Chair of the VT. Business Roundtable, by Senator Bill Doyle to testify in Government Operations in support of a four-year leadership term. Discussed periodically since then, the idea has gone nowhere. What proven leader would sign a two-year employment agreement for an enterprise the size of Vermont?

We will continue to tread water policy-wise until we learn to elect leaders with a proven long view and for an appointment cycle long enough for them to learn, derive consensus, and implement strategic solutions.

Our major challenges are well-understood and quantified – and experienced by most Vermonters: full and affordable access to physical and mental healthcare, food security, education, jobs, child care, broadband, public transportation, and housing. Integral to all these are environmental degradation, the criminal justice system, the tax code, and the foundering industrialized food chain.

In my 40 years observing Vermont politics, I see us holding hearings, paying for studies and consultants, fretting, and sometimes even legislating, but too often in a scattershot manner, missing the obvious fact that these challenges are all interrelated.

By way of example: lack of public transportation affects criminal justice, education, healthcare, jobs, the environment, and housing, among other things. Environmental issues affect health, agriculture, housing, transportation. The crisis in post-secondary education effects jobs, health, education, the food chain, criminal justice, and so on.

Consider:

  • An abused, abandoned, malnourished, or homeless child rarely prioritizes learning. In 2016, the per pupil cost of special ed was $21,840 over the standard per pupil spending of $19,340 for general education.
  • Sequestered in an emergency room for lack of a mental health placement, someone in an emotional crisis is at increased risk for self-harm, suicide, or addiction and may end up in the criminal justice system.
  • The parolee caring for a sick child or whose car won’t start and misses her parole hearing in White River may end up back in prison on a technical violation.
  • We are funding and building a childcare system, even as we close community schools and shred the fabric of our small towns. Why don’t we just open them to earlier ages? Isn’t “childcare” essential early education? Shouldn’t it be?
  • The minimum wage-earner with no public transportation options drives a $500 gas guzzler retired by those of us who can afford hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs), furthering damaging our environment and health.
  • The dairy farmer whose labors barely cover his costs must use glyphosate or chlorpyrifos – both banned in the E.U. – to sustain his monocropping enterprise and unwittingly or unwillingly poisons soils, air, aquifers, and waterways.
  • The rising cost and diminishing applications to Vermont’s 21 colleges further threatens Vermont’s rural economy where many campuses exist.
  • The plumber’s assistant showing promise gets a modest raise and then loses her Section 8 housing voucher (the “benefit cliff”.)
  • The political obsession with lowering taxes ignores the better option of hiring experienced leadership and management to achieve more with less.
  • We spend $90,000 a year incarcerating women jailed for crimes of poverty or addiction, while the tuition cost for Community College of Vermont (CCV) is $6600 and the outside cost for a month of inpatient rehab is $30,000.
  • Obesity, the genesis of many chronic diseases, is endemic, and yet our antiregulatory zeal prevents us from taxing or regulating the industrialized food chain that feeds it.
  • During the pandemic, we’ve deployed telemedicine and distance-learning but are juggling a hodge-podge of plans for funding broadband access to those who need it most.
  • One of my children turns down their annual raise to maintain Medicaid availability, as she cannot afford health insurance.

Under the government lens now are dairy and agriculture policy, childcare, broadband, the Vermont State College System, hunger, housing, healthcare, the tax code, environmental quality. There are almost 300 bills pending in the House and another 88 in the Senate.

Who is looking at all these bills and connecting the dots in a way that leads us to more efficient spending and better outcomes for Vermonters?

Vermont’s revered motto expresses the goal of equilibrium between our commitments to freedom and to unity.

Today we are a house divided – Freedom vs. Unity – me versus us.

Politicians – as opposed to leaders – routinely define themselves by what they’re for and what they’re against, and we elect them based on that knowledge. Imagine a leader who helped us understand how we are all connected and subject to the same challenges.

Until we knit this fundamental fracture and elect people who bring us together and  restore belief in good government, we’ll never experience our own interconnectedness, our “ Unity.” And we’ll continue generating less than effective legislation on an issue-by-issue basis, as if our challenges existed apart from the whole.