The Inaugural Address: A pretty good start

The speech by Governor Shumlin — which he billed as the first of two parts — included some welcome elements. It left a lot unsaid; presumably he will confront property taxes, school governance, health care, and government spending in his budget address next week.

Today’s address focused on two areas: energy, and the environment. In the latter category, his primary focus was on Lake Champlain. It was, if I recall correctly, the first time he’s drawn attention to these issues in a major January speech. To me, it’s a welcome development.

It’s also an opening for him to regain some credibility among liberals. When Peter Shumlin was running for Governor in 2010, his two big issues were single payer health care and the environment (climate change, green energy and Vermont Yankee). But while his administration has made some good incremental gains on the latter issues, they’ve never seemed to get the spotlight. Now they have.

With single payer off the table, perhaps Shumlin is returning to his other signature issue and hoping to put his stamp on Vermont’s future on energy and the environment. If he can’t be the single-payer governor, perhaps he can be the environmental governor. It’s a good strategy.

The caveat, of course: Now he’s gotta deliver.

He also opened the door to raising taxes as part of the effort to close a $100 million budget gap. In a brief preview of next week’s budget address, he said this:

We cannot simply cut our way out of our fiscal challenge year after year – taking away services that are important to so many Vermonters. Nor can we tax our way out of the problem.

Which would seem to indicate that his plan will include a mix of cuts and “revenue enhancements.” I’d urge him to take a long look at the plan that nearly passed the House a couple years ago, which would have raised taxes on the wealthy (by closing loopholes and limiting deductions) and provided some tax relief to the middle and working classes. I say “nearly passed the House” because it was stopped in its tracks by Shumlin’s stubborn opposition.

As for the details on energy and the environment:

The centerpiece on energy is a new renewables strategy, as the current (and, in some circles, controversial) SPEED program is sunsetted in 2017. The Energy Innovation Program is aimed at further boosting our investment in renewables and energy efficiency. Shumlin called the EIP “our single biggest step so far toward reaching our climate and renewable energy goals.”

Sounds good. We await the legislative process with anticipation and a bit of trepidation.

On Lake Champlain, Shumlin came up with a decent-looking package. It doesn’t go far enough, but it’s better than anything he’s offered before. He realizes, as he told the legislature, that if the state fails to meet EPA muster, we’ll face some burdensome federal regulations.

His plan includes:

— New transportation funding to curtail runoff and erosion around our roads and streets.

— New funding and technical assistance for farmers and loggers, to help them meet water-quality standards.

— More thorough efforts to enforce current water quality regulations.

— Making a change in the Current Use program, which would take away that tax break from farmers who fail to reduce pollution.

As for funding, his plan includes two new fees: One on agricultural fertilizers, and one on commercial and industrial parcels in the Champlain watershed.

The revenue would go into a newly created Vermont Clean Water Fund, a repository for state, federal and private funds. The first private money, he announced today, is a $5 million donation (over the next five years) from Keurig Green Mountain, which Shumlin called “a company that depends upon clean water.” He expressed the hope that KGM’s generosity will “inspire others.”

If he can leverage substantial donations from the private sector, his plan could accomplish quite a bit without too much stress on the state’s bottom line. Maybe enough to get the EPA off his back, at least for a while.

From this liberal’s point of view, it’s a good start. But as VPR’s Bob Kinzel said today, the Governor effectively served us dessert before dinner. Next week’s budget address will be a much less appealing dish. Plenty of mushy steamed vegetables scattered around a hunk of gray meat.

Beyond that, well, actions speak louder than words, and we’ve heard plenty of words from this Governor in the past. The political question is: Can he deliver on this agenda in a way that will repair his reputation for effective governance and bring liberals back into the fold? He can; but will he?

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