The “Spirit of Irene” dominates the state of the state address

by Lindsay Smith & Rob Roper

For months, Vermont Republicans have aired the worry that Governor Shumlin and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate would use the fallout from Tropical Storm Irene as a distraction from both the Democrats’ actual policy initiatives, such as universal healthcare, as well as the economic issues Republicans believe state government needs to actually be focusing on.

Governor Shumlin popped the pin on the smoke grenade Tuesday at the governor’s annual State of the State address. The speech was mostly devoid of policy issues, choosing to focus primarily on the emotional stories – some tragic, some uplifting – that came out of the dramatic aftermath of the worst natural disaster to hit Vermont in a century.

This was no surprise to Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) and the Assistant Leader, Brian Savage (R-Swanton). Early in the day Turner said he thought the majority of the speech would center on Irene. Savage agreed, saying, “Certainly the focus will be on the recovery efforts after Irene… and maybe some plans for reconstruction and prevention.”

As Vermont Republican Party chair, Pat McDonald noted afterward, it was all, “grand visions of where the Governor wants to go, but little idea of how we might get there.”

A telling fact: the roughly 3500 word speech only references healthcare or Green Mountain Care once, and only to say that, “If we can rebuild our transportation infrastructure at 35 cents on the dollar, we can lead the nation in arresting the skyrocketing cost of health care that is hurting job growth and picking the pockets of our struggling middle class. Your Green Mountain Health Board is hard at work building that system now.”

Questions still abound about how a universal healthcare system will be paid for, what the benefits package will look like, how it will affect the quality of care and the doctor/patient relationship, and who will pick up the $2 to $3 billion tab in new taxes that would be necessary to finance the program. This was the signature initiative of the governor’s campaign and passing Act 48 the signature accomplishment of his first year in office. It is odd (or revealing) that he chose not to speak of it.

A bright spot to come out of the storm, alluded to in Shumlin’s healthcare reference above, is the possibility of meaningful permit reform. The Irene recovery effort revealed in stark terms how much Vermont’s environmental regulations cost in real dollars. Shumlin pointed out that by bypassing the regulatory process, the state was able to rebuild infrastructure, “…for 35 cents on the dollar, bringing total estimated damage down to $250 million for state roads and infrastructure, and $140 for town roads.” Permit reform is an area that could garner bipartisan support.

Turner is delighted the governor now sees the problems caused by overregulation. “Many of the issues [Shumlin] talked about [Republicans] have been supporting for years. We have been proposing bills for quite a while about this… Now we have this disaster, which really emphasized how overregulated Vermont is. If we’re going to continue to use taxpayer’s money wisely we need to deal with this regulation conflict.” Turner hopes Shumlin will follow through on his talk.

I terms of job creation, Governor Shumlin pointed to many bright spots in the Vermont Business community, from GE, to IBM, to the new resort development at Jay Peak. However, in terms of future job growth, the governor returned to a theme he often touts:renewable energy. “[W]e can create jobs by harnessing the sun, wind, water, forests and fields to produce community generated renewable power…. This session, I will propose requiring an affordable and achievable Renewable Energy Portfolio standard that sets a goal to obtain 75 percent renewable electricity in twenty years.”

During a press conference following the speech, it was pointed out that countries like Spain and states like California have also put a lot of faith and tax money into renewable energy in hopes of boosting their economies and the results have been disastrous. In Spain, for example, green energy policies killed nine jobs for every four they created, and Spain now has 22% unemployment.

Highly visible failures of government driven, green economy efforts such as Solyndra and the Chevy Volt also call into question the viability for such an economic strategy

When asked why he thought Vermont would succeed in where everyone else is failing, the governor cited, in keeping with Turner and McDonald’s prediction, “the spirit of Irene and the innovative spirit of our business folks allows us to beat some of the others to economic renewal if we’re smart enough to make some tough choices.”

He went on, “California’s got all kinds of problems we don’t have… We were meeting with some of the CEOs of Facebook and Google, big companies that are prospering right now in Silicon Valley. And at the dinner I said to him, “so tell me what your biggest problems are?” And guess what they said? Electric rates are too high, our public schools aren’t good enough to be able to get employees to want to work here and to keep their kids here, regulation is killing us, the rising cost of health insurance is crippling our ability to grow. We’re all facing the same challenges together.”

This, of course, sounds like California has many of the same problems facing Vermont.

The “Spirit of Irene” and the spirit of Vermonters who embody it is a real and powerful thing, but we have to put it into some rational context. The skills and qualities necessary to successfully to come together as a community to aid, feed, shelter, and otherwise assist our neighbors in times of disaster don’t necessarily translate into the ability to create a successful energy industry or develop a healthcare system. To perpetuate the myth that it does is foolish and dangerous. What’s more, it does a disservice to Vermonters and the Spirit of Irene.