On with the show

Now that the awkwardly timed primary election is behind us, voters and candidates for public office can turn their attention in full earnest to the central issues which will hopefully get a full airing this fall.

First though, a suggestion - a way needs to be found to time the primary for after Labor Day weekend, not before. Whatever the logic of holding it on the earlier date was, it's flawed, and needs changing. When you only have a turnout of less than 10 percent of voters, that's embarrassing. It's almost a waste of money.

What's also a problem is the lack of competitive races. Several offices had no names for candidates running for them. No election in our area had a contested primary contest. To a point, that accounts for voter apathy. But why don't more people step forward to run for public office? It's a grueling, low paid job that offers much potential for late night phone calls and email, to say nothing of the newish and often unpleasant and anonymous sniping from social media trolls. In an economy that's still struggling to get back to pre-Recession levels, many people can't afford to work part-time in public office, whe ther at the state or local levels.

Others conclude it's not worth the disruption of their personal lives.

That's understandable, but unfortunate. We'll salute all who did step forward to thrown their hats in the ring, and wish them the best going forward in the general election, since most of them will be going forward.

Now to the issues. They breakdown as they so often do, to the three E's - economy, education and environment. Just about every question that will shape voter decision making will involve one or more of those three areas.

On the economy, while there have been some encouraging signs of life, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that it's 1999 again. Current office holders may like to point out how Vermont had the highest growth rate among the New England states (let's remember we also have the smallest economy in New England), and that our unemployment rate is low by national standards. True enough, but Vermont, like the rest of the nation, also suffers, we think, from under-employment, and a 3.7 unemployment rate is misleading. Part of that is due to an aging workforce that is shrinking.

While that might seem like good news to folks in their prime earning years, opening up more opportunities, too often, a shrinking labor force means a lack of qualified workers and a smaller economy that can't generate new jobs. The burst of business activity locally with new construction and proposals for more new, and by local standards, large businesses, is a hopeful sign, but until wages begin to rise and earning power increases, there's going to be a stuck-in-neutral feeling. This is not only a local problem, but a national one, and it has wide-ranging and long-term consequences that lawmakers, economists and businesspeople need to be attentive about. Spending too long in neutral when you want to be in drive is frustrating. Left long enough, it has a corrosive effect on community living standards, and will undermine faith in the idea that hard work and playing by the rules leads to success. In other words, social unrest.

In short, the economy presents problems for everyone from the Governor to the local select board, and encouraging economic growth ought to be a priority for officeholders at every level. There's a lot of slack out there.

Education is another subject around which there is no shortage of debate and division of opinion in Vermont. It breaks down into two areas - what's being taught in schools and the test scores on state assessment exams that result from that, and the cost.

We're planning to discuss the now controversial "Common Core" package of education overhauls being pushed from the federal level (we think there's a lot to like about the overall concept and that the overheated rhetoric from those who see state and local rights in jeopardy is two-thirds hogwash) in a later editorial comment in a couple of weeks. Developing an educated electorate and workforce is a priority second-to-none today.

The big issue left unresolved by the prior Legislature was a plan to consolidate Vermont's 19th centuryesque school districts and supervisory unions. If cost savings are ever to be possible, a goal we assume most people would agree is a good thing as long as it doesn't compromise educational quality and opportunity, school governance consolidation has to be a part of that. Vermont's schools as a rule seem to stand up better than many other states, but we also have one of the highest per-pupil costs in the nation. We can't afford that; it's that simple. And it's hard to believe that strong educational results can't be maintained and achieved in the future if students have to be bussed to a larger school. There's no question it can be easier to get things done in smaller, de-centralized environments where accountability is easier to track and everybody knows everybody, but that's also more expensive in today's world. The trick is to have the best of both - high quality at a sustainable cost. To be continued.

On the environment, we're seeing some interesting proposals for natural gas pipelines and perhaps other powerline transmission lines surfacing elsewhere in the state, though none locally, at least for now. But power costs have a big economic impact and will always be a sensitive subject. Balancing earth-friendly renewables against stubborn economic realities isn't easy. While we don't have a controversial wind turbine or some other project currently in play locally, it's been interesting to see how large solar installations have run into some flak recently in the Rutland area. On the big picture level, it's easy to be for renewables and energy independence. Crunch the numbers a bit and the picture gets muddier. One clear winner is enhanced energy efficiency and insulation. If the state could muster up the resources to continue pushing efficiency programs, that might in the not-so-long term be the fastest and best way towards controlling energy-related expenditures.

There are, of course, plenty of other questions around tax policy and single-payer health care that deserve a hearing. We'll look forward to hearing more from all the candidates in the great theater that is political democracy. On with the show!


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