BRATTLEBORO — In his last speech as governor at the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce's third annual Lunch with the Governor, Peter Shumlin recalled where Vermont was six years ago when he took the post.
"We just came out of the worst recession in American history. It was pretty bleak," he told a crowd gathered Monday at the American Legion. "I think one of the reasons we're having this dialogue with presidential contenders is that folks are really frustrated and we've entered this new realm of cynicism."
Bringing him the most pride during his years as governor, he said, was his "not shying away from tough fights."
That was on display Monday when Brattleboro Subaru owner Frank Hannenberger brought up concerns around recreational marijuana legalization. A bill passed by the Senate was applauded by Shumlin. But the House of Representatives passed a slimmed-down version calling for a study before legalization.
"I think I speak on behalf of all employers who are trying to create a drug-free workplace," Hannenberger said, worrying whether pot can inhibit someone several days after use and questioning the effectiveness of current testing methods.
"I respectfully disagree with you and I assume most Subaru drivers do," Shumlin replied, receiving laughs throughout the room. "When we have this conversation about marijuana, I'm always startled that we have it in the context that if we legalize, we're going to create a problem that we don't have right now. Let's get our heads out of the sand here."
He looked at the regulated markets for alcohol and tobacco as ways to keep harmful products out of children's hands, then cited a poll in which 80,000 Vermonters admitted to buying weed on a monthly basis.
"If 80,000 admitted to buying illegal drugs on a monthly basis, how high do you think that number really is?" Shumlin said. "So when we have this conversation, the question isn't, 'Should we smoke pot?' No, I don't think it's a good idea at all. Should you drink too much? No, that's a really bad idea too, and please don't drive while you're at it. But we're in a world where, statistically, Vermont has among the highest pot consumption in America. That's where we are."
Shumlin wants to see tax revenue from legalizing marijuana used for discouraging the use of all addictive substances.
"When you see heroin in downtown Brattleboro and you see heroin in downtown Burlington," he said, "trust me, it is not pot that led to that. It's (federal Food and Drug Administration) FDA-approved, Big Pharma-promoted, legal pills that drive users, then addicts to the cheaper and more pure version, which is heroin."
Shumlin touted his helping to create over 17,000 jobs and Vermont having one of the lowest unemployment rates in America. Income growth in the state also increased above the national average every year since his inauguration.
Vermont has 10 times the amount of solar panels it had before his becoming governor, Shumlin said.
"And we're about to double that again," he continued. "We built out wind, big wind. I know some people don't like it but it's one of cleanest renewables and most efficient around. We're doing energy efficiency right. We've changed the model for our utilities."
Vermont is seeing 4.6 percent of its jobs being in the green-energy sector. Employees installing solar panels are under 30 years old, and they're the ones going to local breweries and "driving the downtowns," Shumlin said before mentioning the high-quality agriculture and beer produced in the state.
To comply with the Affordable Care Act handed down by Congress, Vermont decided to create its own health insurance exchange. Other states opted for using the federal exchange. Glitches with the Vermont Health Connect website were widely reported.
"I had the living crap beat out of me on health care," Shumlin said, adding that when the law passed "the appetite for technology was more exuberant than the ability of any technology provider in America to deliver the technology."
Low-income residents now have health insurance, he said, and Vermont is tied with Massachusetts for having the lowest uninsured rate in the country.
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said his eight years of serving as speaker had been fun, noting the challenge in having a good relationship between the legislative and executive branches. Resolving any differences between those branches of government is important for both groups to do, he added.
"It would be nice to see some of that happen down in Washington, D.C.," Smith said, getting a round of applause. "I love coming down to Windham County. I think it's an incredible gateway to the state of Vermont."
He said he sees this area as a huge opportunity for the state, citing the Brooks House project with higher education institutes now housed in the downtown Brattleboro building that burned down in 2011 and was rebuilt. Also mentioned were local energy projects and the Hermit Thrush Brewery.
Investing in Vermont's downtowns has become part of Smith's focus.
"That's where people want to live these days," he said. "I also think we need to recognize that we're going to have to change."
The new education law mandating school district consolidation, Act 46, addresses Vermont having 20,000 fewer students than it did 15 years ago. Smith said part of the Act 46 process will require recognizing there are "constrained resources" and those will have to be shared more. Shumlin also commended the law's enactment as he sees it as a way to reduce property taxes in the long run.
State Board of Education Chairman and former House Speaker Stephan Morse applauded Smith, saying Smith looked at the issue from a public policy standpoint rather than taking a partisan view.
"We owe him a lot," Morse said. "Thank you, Mr. Speaker."
Contact Chris Mays at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.