Peter Shumlin has not done a bad job as governor of Vermont since he was elected in 2010. This newspaper did not support his candidacy then, but will concede that his first term was far from awful. His deft handling of the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene was probably his high point, where a bad situation could have been made much worse by bureaucratic foot dragging and a lack of urgency about getting the state's roads and bridges reopened in time for foliage traffic. That was not the case, and Mr. Shumlin deserves some credit for that.
Typically one test for ousting incumbents is some evidence or reason to believe the challenger could do a better job than the incumbent has done or is likely to do. On purely economic issues, the two men seem to agree on broad goals - pushing for economic development that honors its environmental values, holding the line on taxes and spending, and making the state in general an attractive place to do business and grow the number of good-paying jobs.
On this one, however, we're going to urge voters to support Sen. Randy Brock, Shumlin's Republican challenger, for the state's highest office.
Mr. Brock was a state auditor before he was a state senator, and was a highly successful businessman before he was either, as well as a decorated Vietnam veteran. We think he brings a sophisticated understanding to managing the state's finances. So does Mr. Shumlin. Sometimes things come down to intangibles. We find Mr. Brock's overall style and approach more likely to be successful when it comes to overseeing the state's economy and navigating the challenging times that lie ahead.
While outwardly the state has not fared badly over the past 2-4 years as the Great Recession has ground on, two factors give pause for concern. One is that much of the state's economic growth has come in Chittenden County. There may not be anything any governor can do about that given where growth is likely to come from in the future. Good paying jobs will come in knowledge-based industries, and that includes manufacturing. Having several colleges and the state's flagship university -UVM - located in and around Burlington, along with the state's only international airport as well as proximity to the Quebec market, gives that area a huge head start. But that makes it all the more imperative for a governor to ensure that other parts of the state are not hobbled in their efforts to help themselves. We don't say that Mr. Shumlin has so hobbled the other 13 counties. But the numbers are what they are.
Secondly, it's not good when the basic incomes of the state's workforce have remained so stagnant. Again, there may not be much a governor can directly do on this score, and it's part of a national trend. Mr. Shumlin has also correctly noted this problem as well. People may be working, but they are not earning enough to maintain a standard of living they want. But that makes it all the more important to control costs like property taxes and a larger state role in healthcare, until incomes start to rise again. It may be a long time before they do, given the structural challenges to the state's economy that could be in the offing - again, following national trends.
In the meanwhile, we like Mr. Brock's "business in a box" concept, which aims to link unemployed Vermonters with business ideas and plans that would be privately funded. This is something a little different, and worth a closer look.
No discussion of Mr. Shumlin's first term in office would be complete without reference to the often incorrectly stated area of "single payer healthcare." The governor's proposal goes beyond what is called for in the federal Affordable Care Act, which is pretty big change by itself - change in the right direction, by and large, we might add. However, we're concerned the governor is pushing a model of healthcare financing that has too many unanswered questions, particularly when it comes to costs. It's highly reliant on the federal government pumping in large amounts of money in the form of tax credits. Given the need to right-size federal spending and move towards a more balanced level of federal spending that relies less on debt, that's a shaky premise, it seems to us. Mr. Shumlin has said repeatedly that if after they crunch the numbers, "Green Mountain Care," as the program is known, proves too expensive, they'll adjust accordingly. But given the political capital Mr. Shumlin has invested in his healthcare initiative, it would be remarkable if they back off of that track now. We think Mr. Brock's more incremental approach as well as greater emphasis on personal responsibility has a surer footing. We all agree healthcare spending can't continue like it is, but for a small state like Vermont to attempt what Mr. Shumlin has proposed is too risky, unless saddling the state's business community with more costs is somehow acceptable. It shouldn't be.
While we're not holding our breath that a similar overhaul of how the state finances public education is likely, our sense is that Mr. Brock is more likely to look for new ideas in this area - maintaining the state's commitment to adequately funding schools but also maintaining accountability standards. At some point that may well draw fire from the teacher's union, and we think Mr. Brock will be the more objective negotiator.
Mr. Shumlin has also staked out a position on wind energy that is actually closer to our own, which sees wind as one component of a renewables energy portfolio. The entire discussion over energy has been turned on its head by the arrival of increased supplies of natural gas available through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." This is a total gamechanger from just a couple of years ago, and while it doesn't obliterate the case for renewables, it alters the equation. Wind energy seems to be passionately opposed by local residents wherever large "wind farms" are proposed. Their future role in Vermont is highly debatable because of their unpopularity.
While we're on energy, we'll also state -again - that Mr. Shumlin's obsession with closing down Vermont Yankee, the state's sole nuclear power plant, and its hundreds of jobs, as a head scratcher of major proportions. We understand the concerns raised by nuclear energy, especially with regard to the disposal of nuclear waste. But the state has the flimsiest of legal cases to argue for its shutdown. It's simply not the way regulation of nuclear plants work - rightfully, the federal government calls the shots here. That's done to prevent states from adopting standards that would be too soft and ineffective over an industry whose impact is rarely limited to one state. Vermont has no case legally to shut it down, and is wasting its time and our money fighting it in court. We simply think the governor is on the wrong side of this question. We would also like to see him work more closely to ensure the massive IBM plant in Essex stays in the state, because there are other places Big Blue could go. The atmospherics, as far as the outside view looks, haven't been good, given the ongoing mess with the now shelved Circumferential highway.
Governor Shumlin has shown himself to be a competent leader of the state who mostly says the right things in big picture terms. We just think Randy Brock offers more, and urge voters to support him at the polls.