Fifteen minutes after Gov. James Douglas held his annual "state of the state" address Thursday, House Speaker Gaye Symington and Senate President Peter Shumlin pulled the media and party members into one of the large meeting rooms on the first floor of the Statehouse to issue their response.
Here’s what Symington had to say.
Good afternoon. On behalf of myself, Senate President ProTem Shumlin,
and all legislators, I wish you a Happy New Year, and I welcome your
help in tackling the important issues that we face in this legislative
There is striking consistency between the goals outlined by the
Governor and the challenges identified by the three parties in the
legislature. We are all concerned with the impact on Vermonters of the
rising costs of health care, fuel, property taxes, and housing.
Vermonters want us to work together to help them. I believe that we can
and that we will.
Let’s look at our priorities for the upcoming year.
We will focus on lowering health care costs for those who are
under-insured, those for whom the high costs of health care threatens
their very livelihood, particularly small businesses and self employed
We can bring down fuel costs. By getting serious about energy
efficiency, Vermonters can save 20 to 30% of their heating bills. We need a
comprehensive approach to all-fuels energy efficiency, building on our
earlier success with the efficiency of electric energy.
I believe we can reach agreement with the administration on a housing
bill that will create affordable homes for working Vermonters.
We’ll face other issues as well; for example, the deteriorating
condition of our roads, bridges, rail and public transit, the planning
of a new state hospital, the vulnerability of our groundwater, and a
review of our Corrections policies. Right away, we will seek to reduce
the influence of money in politics by passing a campaign finance bill
that would go into effect during the 2008 election cycle.
Concern over property taxes pervades our work. The legislature has
directed over $41 million more towards property tax relief over the last
three years than the Governor, through additional town highway funding,
PILOT, school construction and Education Fund transfer dollars. We will
continue to hold down property taxes and to protect Vermonters from any
attempt to cut income sensitivity or to raid the Education Fund.
This will be a very challenging year for the state budget. I recommend
we avoid short term fix band aid solutions and focus on fiscal
integrity. We have very real challenges to address and we must make the
difficult choices necessary to ensure the long-term economic vitality of
1. The Governor has apparently concluded we need 50 million dollars in
new revenue and that we should increase gambling through the long term
lease of the state lottery to outside interests to come up with the
revenue. It causes one to wonder: This year it is sell the lottery,
what asset will we sell next year?
2. We should not use one-time money to artificially lower tax rates for
what would be only one year, albeit an election year. Instead, I
propose to establish a Cost Containment Assistance Fund to provide a
state share of investments to lower costs of public schools. Schools
that demonstrate long term savings from plans to make facilities more
energy efficient or to consolidate facilities or school districts could
apply to the fund for partial state support for those investments.
Let’s invest in long term cost containment, not election year band-aids
that could actually increase school spending in the long term.
3. Regardless of how we pay for health care, we need to bring down the
long term increase in health care costs and to that end, I agree with
Governor Douglas that we should encourage healthy behaviors through
lifestyle improvements and obesity reduction. We must also seek
creative approaches to providing affordable and comprehensive health
care options for small businesses and self employed Vermonters.
4. Our energy policies will look to the long term by putting forward a
comprehensive plan to reduce home heating fuel use, saving Vermonters
money and ensuring that public heating assistance dollars are going to
heat the home, not the air outside it. Meaningful progress will require
an upfront investment and should not be held back by the failure of the
federal government to fulfill its LIHEAP obligations.
We need to build our economy in a way that is consistent with our
strengths and that takes advantage of opportunities unique to Vermont.
When I ask an entrepreneur why he or she has located or built their
organization in Vermont, the answer often revolves around quality of
life, excellent public schools, safe and vibrant communities and our
We intend to build on these strengths. As we seek new approaches to
affordable housing, we must preserve the balance between housing and
open space, village center life and working landscape. As we work to
contain education costs, we will maintain the excellence Vermonters
expect from their schools, and ensure that community members have a
meaningful chance to participate in decisions about their schools.
We have a unique opportunity to create new well-paying jobs through the
rapidly expanding alternative energy sector that will help free us of
our addiction to fossil fuels. The Senate will initiate legislation to
do just that.
The House Commerce Committee will initiate revisions to our corporate
filing code that provide a welcome home for virtual or digital
corporations, building on our success at attracting captive insurance
firms to Vermont. We would be the first state in the nation to provide
them a solid legal foundation.
I also applaud the work of the Agency of Agriculture to develop a Fair
Trade brand for Vermont or regional milk. This is another example of an
opportunity that builds on Vermont’s unique strengths.
The most common challenge I hear from employers concerns their
workforce availability and development. Jim Hayssen at Bradford Machine
is looking for employees who bring "attitude and aptitude". Dalton
Blackwell of Plason Inc, who is adding 100 positions in the coming year
needs a "workforce that’s reliable, that wants to work day in and day
We need to continue investment in workforce development and training,
as the Governor has proposed. But, we are sending the wrong message, when, as
a state, we increase ads that urge Vermonters to "Buy this lottery
ticket. You can earn a Paycheck by trying your luck." Let’s not
gamble away our greatest asset – the ingenuity and work ethic of
Legislators and the Governor have common priorities. We need to
address them with the long term in mind, not just short term band-aids.
And, we need to build economic opportunity by building on our unique
strengths. I look forward to working with my colleagues in state
government, on both sides of the aisle, in both chambers, and with the
Governor, to do the good work we were sent to Montpelier to accomplish.