Thursday January 6, 2011MONTPELIER — Peter Shumlin was sworn in as Vermont’s 81st governor Thursday afternoon, promising to deliver broadband Internet and cell phone access to every corner of the state, seek a single-payer health care plan, and fend off any efforts to raise taxes.
The 54-year-old Shumlin, from Putney, said his agenda is ambitious, but can be achieved. “Together we can be bold,” Shumlin said. “Together we must be bold.”
The agenda for his administration has five main goals, Shumlin said, all of them promised during the general election campaign in which he narrowly defeated Republican Brian Dubie, whose tenure as lieutenant governor expired Thursday.
Shumlin said he will expand broadband, contain health care costs, provide better education for the work force, provide a fair tax system and offer credit to emerging businesses and support “a renaissance in Vermont agriculture.”
“It is big, it is ambitious, and it is achievable if we it as our common purpose. Let’s do that together,” he said. Shumlin delivered his 35-minute inaugural address before a packed House chamber filled with dignitaries, lawmakers and members of the public.
Several former governors attended, as well as the wife of the late former Gov. George D. Aiken, whom Shumlin referenced several times in his address.
He used a Teleprompter, the first Vermont governor to do so in an inaugural address. But it appeared to initially malfunction as press aides scrambled to fix it. Shumlin read the first portion of his speech from a print version.He said in the address that his election to the state’s top government post was improbable because as a youngster he suffered from dyslexia, and could not read in the third grade. But one teacher, Claire Ogelsby, “slowly and creatively” taught him to read. “She never gave up on me and therefore neither did I,” Shumlin said.
The state must similarly seek creative solutions to close a budget deficit that could reach $150 million. He offered a sobering message about the task that lies ahead. “Let me be clear about the fiscal reality that our great state faces at this very moment. After several years of making necessary and painful spending cuts, we are still confronted with a $150 million shortfall in the next fiscal year. Our economic challenges are real, and so is my firm commitment to address them responsibly and swiftly — with and sometimes painful but sustainable choices. There is no easy or popular path ahead,” Shumlin said.
Improving the economic station of Vermonters who are seeking more jobs and a better economic future will be a main tenet for the new administration. Jobs will be created one at a time if needed, Shumlin said. “The guiding principle for this administration’s work is simple — we will commit ourselves every single day to making the lives of Vermonters more economically secure,” he said. “I believe in Vermont’s opportunity to replace fear with a bright economic future, one job at a time.”
And despite the grim budget challenge, Shumlin said he will seek to balance it without increasing broad-based taxes. That garnered boisterous support among Republican lawmakers, who are the minority party in both the state House and Senate. But it appeared to draw a hesitant response from many Democrats. Shumlin, nonetheless, said Vermonters cannot absorb additional taxation.
“Vermont’s tax challenge is not that our burden is not high enough, it is that our tax burden is too high. We must develop tax policies that grow our customer base and that grow wealth,” he said. “In order to grow jobs and be more competitive with neighboring states, we must resist the temptation to raisebroad-based taxes.”
He pledged during the campaign to implement a single-payer health care system in Vermont,and renewedthat commitment Thursday. Doing so will save moneyand improvecare, Shumlinsaid. Still, he cautionedsingle-payerproponents “to resist the temptation to oversimplify the challenge,” and asked opponents “to challenge us, but to join us at the table.”
“I call upon Vermonters to join together with the common purpose of our state once again leading where others dare not go; universal, affordable; quality health care that follows the individual and is not tied to employment,” Shumlin said.
The state must quickly spread high-speed Internet and quality cell phone service throughout the state, Shumlin said. He recalled former Gov. George D. Aiken’s push for electricity in the late 1930s, saying Internet and cell phone access are just as important today. The state has $410 million in private, federal and bonded capital, Shumlin said, to complete a build-out of a Smart Grid and broadband and mobile phone service. “We all know that it won’t be easy, but Vermonters elected me on my pledge to get tough things done, and we will. Indeed, we are too small to fail,” he said.
Shumlin was formally elected by the Legislature Thursday morning. The Legislature was required to vote because Shumlin did not secure 50 percent of the popular vote. He beat Dubie by about 4,330 votes, but that amounted to just 49.5 percent of the vote.
Reaction among fellow Democrats was positive. Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, a close friend and political ally of Shumlin, said he was moved by the new governor’s comments. “What he said today is why I campaigned so hard for him, becauseI believein those things,” Sears said.
“I got goose bumps, because here is a guy, we were on equal levels, came in to the Senate together,” Sears added. “To see him reach his goals, knowing what he went through, both personally and professionally, buildinga political career,it’s great.”
Sears said heunderstandssome Democrats believe raising some taxes must be included in the discussion. But Sears said he disagreed. “It’s going to be very difficult, but I think you’ve got to start from that position,” he said.
Rep. Anne Mook, D-Bennington, said she believes every idea, including taxes, “has to be up for discussion.”
“His agenda is plentiful, and I’d like to hear what the pieces are of the plan,” Mook said.
Fellow Bennington Democratic Rep. Brian Campion, serving his first term in Bennington’s 2-1 House District, said he looks forward to turning Shumlin’s proposals into policy gains. “I’m really excited to be a part of fulfilling Peter’s vision. I really think we have the right leader,” Campion said. “He’s a fighter. Vermont needs a fighter.”
Outgoing Republican Gov. James Douglas, meanwhile, drove himself home to Middlebury for the first time in eight years. Douglas slipped out a side entrance of the Statehouse after the inaugural address, followed by about a dozen of his former staff. The staffers pelted Douglas’ 2000 Dodge Neon with snowballs and cheered as he accelerated away.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was also elected Thursday by the Legislature after failing to secure 50 percent of the vote. In his address to the Senate, Scott said he planned to be a hands-on official. He said he would open his door to Vermonters, and asked that businesses and offices throughout Vermont open their own doors and “put their lieutenant governor to work for a day.”
Scott said he would focus his efforts on getting Vermonters involved in their government. He said more than 200,000 eligible voters failed to cast a ballot in the November election. “They decided it wasn’t worth it, or it didn’t matter, or it wouldn’t do any good, to make their voice heard. My experience shows that’s just not the case,” he said.
Scott, who first ran for the Vermont Senate 10 years ago, and won, said he would use his own story as an example of what can be accomplished. “I had no prior experience in politics. I was just a regular guy who had worked in construction companies and motorcycle shops, and was frustrated, and wanted to change things,” he said.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org