What the Governor Left Out

Well, now we know what it takes to get Vermont on the radar screen of the national news media.

Have the Governor give a speech about the heroin epidemic sweeping Vermont.

The New York Times, NBC-TV (on their national nightly news broadcast) and several other media heavyweights sat up and took notice. Somehow, a speech virtually solely devoted to "the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont" didn't square with images of maple syrup, fall foliage, ski trails, covered bridges and all of the rest of the carefully massaged aspects of the state's "brand," and the attention and response were understandable.

News is about the new, and this was new(s).

It shouldn't have been news to most Vermonters, who have been aware to a greater or lesser degree of the lives lost or wasted, and the burglaries, thefts, and petty crime that comes so often with heroin and pharmaceutical addiction. While it probably had chamber of commerce officials and those who make their livelihood directly or indirectly from tourism (likely a majority of the population) to cringe more than a little bit, we'll give the governor a bit of credit for taking a risk to highlight what is indeed a big problem here. We noted that as well in last week's editorial comment.

This seems to be a new pattern for Governor Shumlin, who last year devoted the bulk of his state of the state speech, which traditionally opens a new legislative session, to educational issues. No one could argue that was an important subject (funny how that didn't garner the same level of national interest), and it's one the governor could easily have spoken about at length again. There is a connection between the drug abuse problem and education. The third leg of that triangle is economics. While drug addiction is no respecter of economic class, a plausible guess is that many of the younger cohort of drug users who have succumbed to the lure of heroin and pharmaceuticals are those who see their job and career prospects dimmed by the structural changes in state and national economy, which are giving a leg up for those better able to participate in a knowledge-based economy. Those who struggled in school, and dropped out or stopped their educational growth at high school, are probably most at risk of slipping through the cracks into drug addiction. That's not to say all or even a majority will, but the odds get stronger.

There are several other subjects the Governor could have discussed in his speech, and may in his budget address this week.

On education, we hope he offers some fresh thinking on how we are to afford the present system we have inherited and developed over the years. Most Vermonters like the more or less decentralized system handed down from an earlier time. Who wouldn't? You can go to a school board meeting and demand answers from school directors and principals. Most schools in this rural state are still within an easy drive. And less affluent communities get a big boost from the redistributive function of Act 68, the state's educational finance statute.

The problem is it keeps getting more expensive, and another five to seven-cent property tax increase is unsustainable. That will break the backs of what is left of Vermont's small, independently owned and run businesses, and should not even rise to the level of an "option." It's not an option at all. Before that, we need a thorough root-and-branch inventory of where costs can be reduced.

Economic development is another area the Governor chose not to dwell on during his state of the state speech. Every governor since Thomas Chittenden has probably given thought to the subject, and it's a tricky one. For every argument in favor of obvious teasers like tax breaks and incentives, you can make a counter-argument that those sorts of fiscal gimmicks don't result in long term financial health or lower overall taxes. But Vermont needs a strategy for attracting emerging start-up companies and for being able to compete in the 21st century economy. Everyone pays lip service to all of that (just like everyone's in favor of reining in the "drug epidemic) - the tough part is how to do it.

Oh, and then there's that little matter about health care. The Governor may have felt that there had already been enough printer's ink or digital electrons spilled over that one for now. The focus will eventually shift, as it is doing nationally, from the badly botched launch of the health exchanges, to the fact that more Vermonters may at last be able to acquire affordable health insurance that they couldn't before. But the governor is also looking past this phase and on towards the true holy grail - single payer health care. He's no longer being subtle about it either. If that's the case, the time is now - this session - to spell out how he plans to pay for it. All of a sudden, 2017 isn't that far away. If businesses are to be socked with a payroll tax (the last specific idea we've heard of), it's only right to start fleshing that out so companies can prepare (or decide if they want to stay here).

Let's see, what else? There's plenty of other taxing and spending questions, like closing the perennial budget gap ($70 or so million this year) to keep lawmakers busy. One area, related to the drug epidemic, that is crying out for attention is mental health treatment and support for young children in need of extra help.

We could also talk about maintaining roads and bridges, renewable energy (or any kind of energy) and a dozen other things, but we'll wait and see what Mr. Shumlin has lined up for this week's speech.

At the least, he got this part right - drug addiction is a disease which cannot be solved through law enforcement alone. At its heart, it's a treatment question. The stick of law enforcement may be needed for some at least to seek the help they need, but ultimately, we have to help people to help themselves.

We can't arrest or incarcerate our way out of the problem.


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