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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Douglas: Economic Leadership

Utah just reported a large, unexpected surplus. In some recent years Texas created as many jobs as all other states combined. Natural resources have sparked economic expansion in North Dakota. States including Arkansas and North Carolina have reduced taxes to attract investment and growth.

Here in Vermont, there’s a substantial deficit in our general fund. Property taxes keep rising despite two decades of declining numbers of kids in our schools. Our working-age population is smaller than four years ago, our birth rate is the second lowest and our population has grown more slowly than every state but West Virginia.

But we’re a safe, healthy place with natural beauty and a quality of life second to none, so how can this be?

Working Vermonters have a heavy tax burden, our regulatory system is onerous and we’re consistently ranked among the least favorable states in which to do business. We’ve just been through a long period of uncertainty as to how health care will be financed, with many businesses nervous about the huge taxes that would have funded a state-run plan.

Given this context, the principal focus of the new legislature should be to restore our competitiveness as a place to invest, innovate and create jobs. That requires predictable public policy, not political swagger. We need to concentrate on the fundamentals.

Many business leaders say they can work in a challenging environment like ours if they’re not confronted with abrupt and erratic changes in laws that affect them - or with politically motivated regulation. The most alarming recent example has been the proposed, but now-dormant, single-payer health care scheme.

I hope legislators will listen to constituents who are actually risking their own money, employing their neighbors and trying to succeed in business. These discussions, rather than being driven by special-interest lobbyists, will offer greater insight into which policy choices can help or hurt.

Lawmakers need to think through the consequences of their actions in both the short and long terms. It can be difficult for politicians on a two-year cycle, who prefer instant gratification, to understand that sometimes the results of their decisions won’t be felt right away; that’s certainly been my experience with the Blueprint for Health, which only now is showing declining expenditures per patient, more than a decade after its launch.

Each measure that’s presented this session should be examined through a single, critical lens: will this proposal improve Vermont’s economic and fiscal health?

Jim Douglas, a former governor of Vermont, is an executive in residence at Middlebury College.
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