We are well into the second term of Gov. Peter Shumlin, and it’s possible to get a fix on how the political discourse and agenda have changed in comparison to the eight years under Gov. James Douglas and under Howard Dean before that.
Douglas’s tenure was shadowed at the beginning and end by recession. He took office in 2003 in the wake of the recession of the early Bush years, and he left office in 2011 in the depths of the Great Recession. Out of necessity and inclination, Douglas’s tenure was dominated by economic issues — the need to cut spending in order to balance the budget as revenues fell. He launched a variety of initiatives aimed at, among other targets, drug abuse and pollution of Lake Champlain. But budget strictures limited the capacity of state government to act. Douglas stressed an “affordability” budget that was meant to cut taxes and make college affordable.
Vermont’s budget pressures have not been resolved, but what is striking about the Shumlin governorship is the nature of the issues that dominate the agenda. First of all, Shumlin had to deal with Tropical Storm Irene, which transformed, not just the physical landscape of the state, but the political landscape as well. Priorities got jostled, and ordinary budget assumptions were shaken up. An issue that had dogged both of Shumlin’s immediate predecessors — the state’s antiquated and inadequate mental health facilities — was thrust forward because the flood had destroyed the Vermont State Hospital.
But mental health was not the only issue driven by events. Two of the issues at the top of Shumlin’s agenda are drug addiction and the welfare of children. In fact, more than at any time in years, important social issues are crying out for attention, and the governor is trying to take them on.
Naturally, discussion of what to do about drug abuse must occur within the parameters of fiscal reality, but the budget limitations that previously seemed to impose limits on debate, are not the dominant consideration. Instead, Shumlin has launched a searching debate about drug abuse that has reached all the way to the White House.
Shumlin gave an impassioned plea at a Washington, D.C., summit on heroin and prescription drug addiction last week during which he said it was important to treat addiction as a disease and not to avert our eyes. He described Vermont’s new program, created by newly passed legislation, to give those arrested for many drug-related crimes the option of choosing treatment as an alternative to criminal prosecution. An effort is under way in the state to ensure that everyone seeking treatment is able to find it and that the bias against treating addicts for their addiction comes to an end.
“I was hearing from people across Vermont,” Shumlin said. “Suddenly a light went off in my head. I said, ‘You know, this is something that nobody wants to talk about. This is a disease that we all tend to discriminate against, and this is an issue where if leaders who are elected don’t lead, at least in Vermont, we will lose the quality of life that we so cherish as a state.’”
Shumlin and the Legislature showed their approach was more than political theatrics when they passed the new law guiding people toward treatment. Now it is up to state officials to make sure the program has the resources to make it work. Otherwise, the exercise will turn out to have been theatrics after all.
The other major social issue thrust upon the Shumlin administration has been the operations of the Department for Children and Families, called into question because of the deaths of two small children whose cases may have been mismanaged by the department. Extensive investigations have turned up evidence of faulty communications within the department, and action is in the offing.
This issue is getting attention, not in the context of a budget discussion, but in the context of human tragedy and the need to reform child protection programs, whatever the cost. There’s no doubt Douglas and Dean would also have focused on the importance of protecting children. The difference is that we are in a time when the imperatives for action come at us with clarity and force, requiring immediate decisions and the expenditure of all necessary money. There will be debates about what is necessary, but no debate that action must be forthcoming.