BRATTLEBORO — Local lawmakers had at least one takeaway from Gov. Peter Shumlin's annual address in common: the need to press on.
"The State of the State, I think, is a tough high wire act to pull off in your last year," said Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham District. "Because you're trying to really reflect on all the things that have gone well and the work that's still left to do without being discouraging to the Legislature. I left feeling a lot of pride in our state. And looking around at the senators, sitting with Republicans and Democrats, there were parts of the speech that both parties could rally around. It makes me really proud to be a Vermonter."
While legislators will be running for seats again and a new administration will replace Shumlin's next year, Balint said she exited the Statehouse with a new purpose.
"I think it was this sense that there's still stuff to do under his leadership," she said.
Knowing Shumlin's popularity in Windham County "took a hit" when he moved away from single payer health care, Balint said she wants people to remember that is not the totality of his governorship.
"He really has been a leader on the opioid epidemic and he really shined a light on that before any other state was willing to do that. He's been very committed to growing jobs in Vermont. I don't want that message to get lost," she said.
Resonating the most with Balint was the jobs report; 17,000 jobs were added within the last five years while expansion at G.S. Precision and G.W. Plastics, and a new company coming from Quebec, Canada, is expected to help continue the trend. She was part of a conference committee looking to attract Quebec businesses. She also serves on the Senate Committee on Economic Development.
But finding skilled workers to match vacant positions will remain a challenge in the state. That was something speakers from every corner of Vermont spoke about at a Vermont Chamber of Commerce conference in Burlington on Friday, Balint said.
Attracting employees to Vermont is one of the missions associated with economic development while getting high school graduates into training programs or higher education classes is another.
"We need to be welcoming not just of war-torn refugees but those of other races and cultural backgrounds to add to our workforce. Those who worked on these issues know most new workers in the economy in New England are going to be people of different backgrounds and cultures," Balint said. "We do an exceptional job in Vermont with high school graduation rates. We're not as good at getting folks in high school into higher education, not necessarily four-year schools, but CCV (Community College of Vermont) or Vermont Tech."
Touting CCV's Man Up program which assists young men with higher education support and mentoring, Shumlin proposed a $2 million project called Step Up to fund a semester of free courses and support services for first generation and low-income students going back to school.
Balint also called attention to local residents Leigh and Charles Merinoff's contribution to the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Grants assist forestry and agriculture projects around Vermont.
"It was really great that people from the private sector made generous donations. I was glad to hear he (Shumlin) raised $150,000 for the Working Lands Fund. That's our agricultural renaissance," said state Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, who sits on the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee. She too commended the Step Up proposal. "We have jobs but we don't have the skill sets to do them. We need to get college graduation rates up."
Regarding marijuana legalization, Stuart said she agreed with Shumlin's points "pretty much wholeheartedly," meaning safeguards need to be in place so the drug doesn't get into the hands of children or legislation doesn't expand the black market. And she wants to see what other states are experiencing before getting into "the edible arena."
"It was a very inspiring speech," said state Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro. "I was thrilled to see the governor was so passionate and so energetic about his proposals. I think it made everyone feel good at the beginning of the session to go forward."
She was surprised to hear Shumlin talk about moving away from fossil fuel investments. He called for a divestiture bill.
"Last year, we had conversations with the treasurer about that and she naturally has to protect state pension funds and things like that. But also, evidence was out that it was prudent to divest from those stocks and invest in other renewable energy sources," said Burke. "To have it appear in the State of the State was pretty exciting."
To achieve this, Shumlin said Vermont "must partner" with California "which manages hundreds of billions of dollars of state funds." Stuart totally agreed.
"Let's remember Vermont is downwind of the coal fired plants to our West; we're the tailpipe to their dirty energy choices. Their pollution sickens our children, creates acid rain, dumps mercury on our forests and in our lakes and increases greenhouse gas emissions," Shumlin said before noting Vermont's environmentalist author Bill McKibben's presence at the speech. "While we await the California study on oil, Vermont should not wait to rid ourselves of ExxonMobil stock."
Burke also commended Shumlin's approach to the opiate crisis. His being "very forceful" about his opinions on the role of the Federal Drug Administration and drug companies, she said, was one of the speech's great moments. He hopes to restrict access to prescription painkillers and expand treatment.
"I found it very inspiring," Burke told the Reformer of the address which she said received a lot of standing ovation applause.
Most of the issues expected in this legislative session came up in the speech, according to Burke. But talk of a carbon tax was missing.
"I think a lot of people are wary of that," said Burke. "How far it will go? I'm not sure. As long as that's something that can be offset with other taxes, I'm totally in favor of, with the caveat that it has got to work with people financially."
Shumlin spoke to a challenge with the new education law. School boards are faced with a choice: stay below a 2 percent allowable growth rate or be taxed double for every dollar above it.
"We should be so proud that Act 46 is working better than any of us had anticipated. Communities across Vermont are finally having the very difficult but necessary conversation about how we right-size our education enterprise to improve quality and reduce costs," said Shumlin. "The rigid spending caps that were a small part of that bill have become the enemy of the good. I ask you to work swiftly in the coming weeks to pass either a moratorium or a repeal of this small piece of Act 46 before school boards have to send their budgets to the printers for Town Meeting Day."
Those comments were "encouraging" for state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, to hear. Many are pointing to the 7.9 percent increase in health insurance premiums as reason alone to change the spending limit.
"I totally agree with elimination or moratorium of the spending caps in Act 46," Mrowicki said. "There were a lot of financial ramifications that happened in that bill that weren't accounted for. They were not figured into the formulas for the spending cap and I think that was a huge oversight."
According to VTDigger, 106 school districts are expected to be penalized for going over the allowable growth rate. That number could increase as boards continue to approve budgets to go before voters.
A day before the address, American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont Executive Director Allen Gilbert told the House Education Committee his group believes the caps violate a legal decision saying all districts must have equal access to school funds. They are calling for a repeal on the spending limit.
"We have said that we will consider any requests for legal assistance from districts harmed by the provision," said Gilbert.
Shumlin's mention of the murder of Department of Children and Families social worker Lara Sobel was considered "timely" by Mrowicki. In addition to increasing safety measures at department facilities, Shumlin is suggesting the Legislature approve his request to fund 35 new DCF positions.
"We need to address the conditions that make a worker more safe in terms of work load," said Mrowicki.
Stuart also supported the proposal, saying DCF has been "very short on staff" as cases increase.
Applauding the governor for approaching his last session in office this way, Mrowicki said Shumlin is one of the few great orators who can still give a great speech.
Paul Kim, whose family owns Shin La Restaurant in Brattleboro, said no one will work as hard as Shumlin to "drive our state and people forward!"
"And that he has," Kim wrote in a tweet to the Reformer. "Presidential future."
Maddi Shaw contributed to this report.