May 7, 2020

Tim Volk: Tough love for Vermont

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tim Volk, of Charlotte, a founder of Kelliher Samets Volk (now KSV) who has served on nonprofit boards, including Vermont Community Foundation, ECHO Leahy Center, and the Vermont Business Roundtable.

Vermont is broken.

Don’t take my word for it. Just survey the policy failures in recent years.

The debacle at the Vermont State Colleges System is just the latest in a series of failures of inaction or half action. Chancellor (now former) Jeb Spaulding finally called the Legislature’s bluff with a proposal to shutter Northern Vermont University and its two campuses and to consolidate Vermont Technical College in Williston. You can criticize him for poor tact and timing but not for honesty and consistency. He’s been pointing out the structural weaknesses (underfunding and declining demographics, notably) of the system for some years and has asked the Legislature repeatedly for a lifeline, to little or no effect. What did our legislative leaders expect to happen when push came to shove (read Covid-19)? Five private colleges in Vermont have failed in recent years. Did they think the state system was immune?

Or consider Vermont’s mental health system, wounded by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and still on life support, some would argue. Clearly the closing of the Vermont State Hospital was devastating. But the series of underfunded half-measures that followed have yet to create the highly functional, compassionate system at scale we need to care for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Then there’s the underfunding of the Vermont state pension system and retiree health care. While legislators may take comfort in the fact that this is a national problem, faced by many states, and can point to two damaging financial crises in a dozen years reducing returns, there really is no excuse for underfunding the promises made to our teachers and state employees to the tune of $4.5 billion. In case you’re counting, that’s a $7,200 burden for every man, woman and child in the state. (Disclosure, I am an emeritus member of the Vermont Business Roundtable, which has been advocating for pension reform for more than a decade.)

And what of K-12 education policy? Vermont rightly claims its place as an education state, with among the highest high school graduation rates in the country (although among the lowest continuation rates). We have a remarkable system of community schools and dedicated educators and administrators committed to all Vermont’s children. Still too many kids fall behind and struggle to meet proficiency in reading and writing and math and science. And it’s not because we’re underfunding education. Vermont regularly spends among the top five states in the nation, at almost $20,000 per student per year, explained in part by our small scale, including many small rural schools trying desperately to do well by their students, and by a sharp decline in the school-age population.

Sadly, the list of policy failures goes well beyond these four. State government in Vermont is technology-challenged (maybe even technology averse) and has been for some time. Most recently the Department of Labor unemployment insurance system has collapsed in the face of an unprecedented volume of claims following the Covid-19 pandemic. It doesn’t help that the system runs on a 60-year-old programming language (COBOL) on a 30-year-old mainframe computer. And to add insult to injury the state has spent more than $10 million in recent years to upgrade the system, finally giving up with no improvement. Lest you think that’s a one-off problem created by the pandemic, consider the Department of Motor Vehicles debacle a few years ago whereby the state again invested tens of millions of dollars only to abandon the project.

What else? Well there’s the cleanup of Lake Champlain and other major bodies of water throughout the state. Despite the expenditure of more than $50 million and enforcement action against the state by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration, our waterways are no cleaner for all our efforts. They’re actually more polluted.

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The list goes on. The last-mile broadband promises made by multiple administrations. The tragedy of state prisons, including hundreds of inmates incarcerated outside Vermont away from their families, and the recent sad revelation of sexual misconduct at the state’s only women’s prison in South Burlington. The ongoing opioid crisis. The rural-urban divide (read Chittenden County versus the rest of the state). Our challenging demographics (second oldest state in the nation). The massive fraud perpetrated in and on the Northeast Kingdom, still unresolved after five years, with little transparency and accountability from state government.

So I don’t come off as a complete crank, there are plenty of bright spots on the policy landscape. Our public health and health care systems have performed admirably in the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as has Gov. Phil Scott and his extended state government team. We have a diverse, productive and growing (if not fast enough) business and employment sector that in many ways enables everything else we have in Vermont. And we have a powerful congressional delegation that routinely delivers for Vermont.

In a recent editorial, Emerson Lynn, editor emeritus of the St. Albans Messenger, described the problem succinctly: We have “a political structure in Vermont that silently admits the challenges but publicly refuses to deal with them.”

Individually these policy failures might each have a plausible explanation. But together they amount to a level of policy dysfunction that should concern every citizen of Vermont. We like to talk about Vermont exceptionalism, and we like to stake bold territory (civil unions, renewable energy, minimum wage), but maybe we’re not as good and as effective as we think we are.

As citizens, should we simply accept these policy failures as the price of democracy? I know, democracy’s messy, it’s slow, it takes forever to find consensus around thorny societal problems. Or should we set higher expectations of our elected officials?

As an inveterate optimist, I’m for the latter. So, where do we start?

First, I think we need and deserve a new honesty from our elected officials. It may be that the Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of the power of truth (and its opposite, the utter corruption sowed by dishonesty). We need political leaders to tell it like it is and then act on their convictions. A clear-eyed acknowledgement of the problems facing the Vermont State Colleges five years ago and the speedy implementation of innovations might have put us on the path to a vibrant mix of in-demand degree and non-degree programs today instead of a too-big, unwieldy, unsustainable system on the verge of bankruptcy.

Second, we need to leave our ideology at the Statehouse door. We elect representatives to go to Montpelier to improve the lives of all citizens and to solve our societal problems, not to advance their agenda or favorite cause. I’m looking at you Democrats, Republicans and Progressives.

Third, we need a bias for action and for bold solutions. Maybe Montpelier needs to outlaw study committees and establish action committees. There’s a powerful concept in business, especially in startups — fail fast, fail cheap. Maybe state government needs to give it a try. Note: Spending millions on IT infrastructure with no discernible improvement is not an example of fail fast, fail cheap.

Fourth, maybe we need to do less and accept the limits of state government, any government for that matter. I would welcome a state government that does fewer things better, rather than what we have now — one that stretches too much and underfunds practically everything it does.

Finally, we desperately need leadership. No, not standard-issue leadership. There are plenty of good leaders in Vermont, in all sectors, including state government. What I yearn for is someone who brings fresh perspective and new, bold ideas and no fear to the public policy arena. Someone who is willing to be brutally honest with us about the problems we face and the solutions we need to embrace.

Come on, Vermont. We can do better. A lot. For our children and our grandchildren and their children.

“In war, the first casualty is truth,” and now in a pandemic, as well. Thus it’s all the more vital today to support VTDigger’s collection of accurate timely news.

Bill Mares, VJT Board Member

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