“It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
–Lyndon B. Johnson
ICYMI, House Speaker Shap Smith has done something a bit unusual on two key issues, education funding and economic development. He solicited public input, and created special brainstorming committees to evaluate ideas.
The existence of these committees is interesting enough; it smacks of a legislative leader angling for the bigger stage. This process amounts to an informal, back-office policy shop, and gives Smith a very central role in crafting policy instead of, say, waiting for Governor Shumlin to initiate. His work with the committees also can’t help but endear him to some pretty prominent people.
More evidence of ambition can be found the makeup of the two groups. The education panel included ten current and former lawmakers: Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Good for building nonpartisan street cred.
The economy group included many of The Great And Good of Vermont’s business community, including Betsy Bishop of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, Tom Torti of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, and (Lord help us) Bruce Lisman of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity. The chair, Paul Ralston, is a former Democratic legislator who alienated many of his caucus mates during his single term*, and ended by partnering with Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann in Vision to Action Vermont, a PAC that’s just about as nonpartisan as Campaign for Vermont.
*I’ve heard him described as a junior-grade version of Peter Galbraith for his self-centered ways. Love his coffee, though.
The group also includes a healthy share of relatively progressive businessfolks, like Andrew Savage of All Earth Renewables, Andrea Cohen of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and Cairn Cross of FreshTracks Capital. But there was no one from the labor movement, and no one from any progressive or environmental organization.
It smacks of triangulation, the favored strategery of upwardly mobile Democrats and the bane of liberals. And it smacks of building networks of support among the deep-pocketed donor class. Which tends to lead to centrist policymaking, not to mention one of Gov. Shumlin’s favorite pastime, kicking the hippies.
I’m not ready to call Smith a sellout. A recent report on VPR lists some ideas emerging from the job-creation committee, and they actually sound pretty good: identifying ways to unlock capital for small businesses and startups, matching technical-school curricula with the needs of Vermont tech companies. Also, Cross is quoted as saying that Vermont’s business climate has more to do with quality of life and a clean environment than the old bromides of tax breaks and deregulation.
That sounds like a relatively progressive approach to economic development. And truth be told, there’s a need for a strategy that cuts through the standard liberal/business debate — that encourages job growth without abandoning liberal principles.
For instance, there is probably room for — and please don’t shoot me — some modest reform in the permitting process. The very phrase “permit reform” has been uttered by so many Republicans for so many years, it raises immediate hackles in the liberal community. Can we find a way to ease the process for the kinds of enterprise that create good jobs and contribute to our economic vitality without simply greasing the skids for strip malls and subdivisions? We probably can, and maybe — just maybe — Smith is trying to break the usual pattern and find a third way.
I’m willing to wait and see what emerges before passing judgment on the process and on Smith’s motivations.
As for the political question: Is Shap Smith running for governor? I don’t know. And at this point, he probably doesn’t either. But he’s certainly developing relationships and laying the groundwork for a future run, should he decide to do so.