Public Assets Institute > Press > Op-Eds > Voters chose more effective government

Voters chose more effective government

Nov. 9, 2008, Times Argus
by Jack Hoffman

Gov. James Douglas sounded the right note in his re-election speech when he declared his top priority would be to address the problems in Vermont’s economy. In fulfilling his promise to “revitalize Vermont’s economy,” the governor must be mindful of the enormous shift in the country’s — and the state’s — political mood that culminated on Tuesday.

Barack Obama won the biggest popular vote of any Democrat since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater. Vermonters voted 2-1 for Obama: only Hawaii and the District of Columbia gave him bigger margins of victory.

That win was not only a mandate for the policies Obama advocated during his campaign. It was a repudiation of the policies that produced the current economic crisis.

According to the exits polls on Tuesday, only 20 percent of the electorate believes the country is on the right track. What track is that? For nearly 30 years, we’ve been hearing that government is the problem – that lower taxes, smaller government and less regulation would bring prosperity to all.

But that has not worked. The median income of most Americans has actually declined since the 1970s, after inflation. And the disparity between rich and poor has grown. In Vermont, that gap has widened more than almost anywhere else in the country in recent years. Meanwhile, the state’s employment growth has lagged behind most other states. Vermont created new jobs at half the national rate from 2002 to 2007.

As the governor and the Legislature look to shore up Vermont’s economy, they cannot rely on the policies that have generated anemic job growth and expect them to produce a different result. Americans — and Vermonters — affirmed Tuesday that it is time for new thinking. Obama’s message — embraced resoundingly by Vermonters — was that government has an essential role to play in promoting prosperity, rebuilding the middle class, transforming our industries for a green 21st century and helping those who have been left behind by forces larger than themselves.

To do these gigantic jobs, government needs adequate resources – both personnel and funding. The era of weak, underfunded government – government that cannot deliver for its people – is over.

Vermont is one of 39 states that are struggling to close budget gaps this year or next. In all likelihood, the federal government will step in to help Vermont and the other states in their hour of desperation. There is growing support, even among some of the old anti-government crowd, for a new economic stimulus package that would target aid to the states. Increased funding for Medicaid, transportation and unemployment benefits are among the ideas being considered. These are classic stimulus proposals, aimed at alleviating the pressure on state budgets, putting money in the pockets of people who are most likely to spend it on everyday essentials and pumping money into local economies through spending on useful infrastructure like roads and bridges.

Such a package would be tailor-made for Vermont, which needs an additional $70 million next year just to cover its Medicaid obligations and has a serious backlog of road and bridge repairs. An infusion of federal funds could give Vermont some breathing room.

But Vermont’s economic woes are not a one-year problem. Vermont needs to use the opportunity to address its longer-term funding problems, which are tied up in a tax code that produces inadequate resources to fund the services that Vermonters want and need.

Vermonters re-elected a solid Democratic majority to the General Assembly and gave Gov. James Douglas a majority to serve a fourth term. Each has a legitimate mandate. But Vermonters – along with millions of other Americans – also said Tuesday they want government to play a more effective role in revitalizing the economy.

They don’t want to be told that government can’t afford to do it.

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