In welcome-back speech, Smith sees challenges, opportunities

Sounding much like the guy who’ll be delivering the State of the State tomorrow, Shap Smith this morning dedicated the bulk of his 1,378 speech to jobs, and what Vermont needs to do get more of them.

Like Gov. Peter Shumlin, Smith cited higher education, workforce development, telecommunications infrastrcture and the growth of a green-energy economy as the most reliable paths to prosperity.

On college education:

“Our test scores are among the best in the country. Yet, too few of our high school students seek a college degree. Many employers tell us how challenging it is to find qualified workers to fill their job vacancies. Most alarming, is that educational attainment is still lagging behind for those on the lower end of the economic ladder.”

On telecom and road infrastructure:

“Vermont’s current infrastructure is not sufficient for a strong economic future. We have taken steps to address this challenge, using ARRA monies to improve our roads and bridges, build out our broadband network and modernize our electrical grid. While our commitment to make long-term investments in the state’s physical infrastructure and human capital has been a priority, our work is not finished. We must continue to invest in transportation infrastructure and broadband, this will make us most competitive economically and will help to address the problem of demographic decline.”

Smith saved his most impassioned lines for the perils of climate change, and his belief that the solutions to global warming will also build the foundation for a 21st century economy:

“While we have passed energy bills that pave the way for a cleaner environment, and a reduced dependency on foreign oil, we have increasingly been witness to dramatic weather events. The drought that engulfed so much of the country last summer, and the second hurricane to ravage the eastern seaboard in as many years are examples of how devastating natural disasters are likely to be the norm in the future. That is why we must adapt and act swiftly to address the threat of global climate change. Our actions must include efforts to reduce future impacts to our climate, but must also recognize that our climate has been altered and it is likely we cannot do anything about it. And we must acknowledge that those changes will have impacts on Vermonters. During the coming session, the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy will work with the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development to take testimony from the businesses and people of the state to learn the details of the effects of climate change, to learn what measures are being taken to adapt to this change and how we can lead the charge to prevent future degradation of our environment by moving toward reducing and eliminating carbon-dependent energy use. I know that some of us will say “it was kind of cold last night…it was cold last week.” But all you have to do is talk to ski resorts and stores that work in the snow sports industry to learn that there are real economic impacts of climate change.”

The full text of Smith’s speech:

Four years ago, this body first elected me to serve as Speaker of the House. I am humbled now, as I was then, by the faith that you have placed in me to serve as your Speaker. I hope to honor that faith over the coming two years as we work together to make Vermont a better place.

In the years since I was first elected Speaker, our state and country has experienced a grave economic downturn and politics have become increasingly polarized on the national level. The political culture in the nation’s capital has left many discouraged and, quite frankly, disgusted. As the country faces monumental challenges — huge future fiscal imbalances, crumbling infrastructure and an education system that is not preparing our children for citizenry or the work force, many openly wonder whether our leaders and systems are capable of putting aside their differences, rolling up their sleeves and laying a foundation for a strong future.

I believe that we can set a better example in Vermont. In the past four years, in the wake of great economic and political stress and in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, Vermonters have united both within this body and across the state to face our challenges, see within them possibility, and chart a course for a better future.

So, what are our challenges, as we look out over the next two years? And where do we see possibility? Vermont’s education system is a national leader. A high percentage of our students graduate from high school. A significant number of our adult citizens have college degrees, more, in fact, than most other states. Our test scores are among the best in the country. Yet, too few of our high school students seek a college degree. Many employers tell us how challenging it is to find qualified workers to fill their job vacancies. Most alarming, is that educational attainment is still lagging behind for those on the lower end of the economic ladder.

We have, through many policies we have adopted in this legislature, laid a strong foundation. We commit more resources than almost any other state in the country to our K-12 education system and our scores are among the best. But our students should, and must be the best prepared in the country. That is the goal that we must hold. Whether graduating from high school, from a college or university, or continuing education after college, we need to ensure that our students have the skills necessary to succeed once they leave school. And we need to work together to find innovative ways to reduce the crushing financial burden that many now experience when they complete their college education. Our Committees on Education and Commerce and Economic Development will work together to ensure that we are providing the legislation necessary to meet these goals over the next two years.

For too long the cost of health care in Vermont, as in the rest of the country, has been rising at an unsustainable rate, straining Vermonter’s finances and making access to health care less attainable. In Vermont, we have recognized this challenge. Vermont is in the midst of transforming its health care system, and by health care system, I mean the whole system, both physical and mental. We may live in the healthiest state in the nation, but we live in a nation that spends more on health care than any other country, while our life expectancy, infant mortality, and percentage of Americans suffering from heart disease and obesity rank worse than many other developed nations-that is unacceptable. We are on the path to an affordable, universal health care system in Vermont, but for the sake of our country we cannot get there fast enough. There is no doubt that the transition to a new system is going to be difficult. There already have been, and there will be bumps in the road. But we understand the importance of moving forward and it is incumbent on us to keep the pressure on reducing costs and push forward to make sure everyone has access to affordable health care.

While we have passed energy bills that pave the way for a cleaner environment, and a reduced dependency on foreign oil, we have increasingly been witness to dramatic weather events. The drought that engulfed so much of the country last summer, and the second hurricane to ravage the eastern seaboard in as many years are examples of how devastating natural disasters are likely to be the norm in the future.

That is why we must adapt and act swiftly to address the threat of global climate change. Our actions must include efforts to reduce future impacts to our climate, but must also recognize that our climate has been altered and it is likely we cannot do anything about it. And we must acknowledge that those changes will have impacts on Vermonters. During the coming session, the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy will work with the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development to take testimony from the businesses and people of the state to learn the details of the effects of climate change, to learn what measures are being taken to adapt to this change and how we can lead the charge to prevent future degradation of our environment by moving toward reducing and eliminating carbon-dependent energy use.

I know that some of us will say “it was kind of cold last night…it was cold last week.” But all you have to do is talk to ski resorts and stores that work in the snow sports industry to learn that there are real economic impacts of climate change.

Like the rest of the country, Vermont’s current infrastructure is not sufficient for a strong economic future. We have taken steps to address this challenge, using ARRA monies to improve our roads and bridges, build out our broadband network and modernize our electrical grid.

While our commitment to make long-term investments in the state’s physical infrastructure and human capital has been a priority, our work is not finished. We must continue to invest in transportation infrastructure and broadband, this will make us most competitive economically and will help to address the problem of demographic decline. We have to address the long term challenges that face our Transportation fund. We must also work to ensure that one of our state’s most precious resources, our own great Lake Champlain is restored to its natural beauty.

These are not our only challenges. We face an epidemic of opiate abuse and the specter of a similar epidemic of methamphetamines. Our benefit structures can at times discourage Vermonters from economic advancement. With all our good intentions, we have put together a structure that helps people, but sometimes hinders them-we need to fix this. The cost of housing is an issue. Our wages are not growing fast enough.

I believe that, unlike Washington, we are up to facing these challenges. Why? We are a small state with closely knit communities. I, like you, visit with my neighbors at corner stores, coffee shops and community schools, discussing the pros and cons of what we are doing in Vermont and here in Montpelier. The intimacy of our democracy protects us from the forces that rend our nation’s political fabric. It continues to be the source of our strength as body and as a state. As we engage each other, we realize that in spite of our differences, we have, at our very core, the same goal – a commitment to each other and a commitment to make the world a better place for all Vermonters.

In the end, I believe we, as all Vermonters, are humble enough to admit our challenges, thoughtful enough to consider all possible solutions, responsible enough to work with those with whom we disagree, and brave enough to chart new courses where necessary.

Humility, thoughtfulness, responsibility, and bravery: America’s and Vermont’s past success has been possible because its people practiced these principles. Our greatest ideals and ideas flowed from these foundations.

Let us today embrace these principles as we begin our work to build a better Vermont. Let us be servants to Vermont’s future and to its very special people.

Let us get to work. Thank you.

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