Gov. Peter Shumlin debates Republican candidate Randy Brock, unseen, at a gubernatorial candidate debate at Vermont Public Radio in Colchester. (AP photo)
Gov. Peter Shumlin debates Republican candidate Randy Brock, unseen, at a gubernatorial candidate debate at Vermont Public Radio in Colchester. (AP photo)
Saturday October 27, 2012

RICHMOND -- Politicians often are criticized for telling people what they want to hear rather than being fully open with them, and Gov. Peter Shumlin says he doesn't want to fall into that trap.

"I think you're better off telling people the truth than telling them what they want to hear," the Democratic governor said in an interview.

It may be easier for him to do that when polls show 60 percent support for the incumbent, with Republican challenger Randy Brock in the high 20s. Those are the results of polls conducted in May and August by the Castleton Polling Institute at Castleton State College.

Shumlin's willingness to tell what he sees as the truth was on display during a recent appearance before the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council, where he repeatedly responded coolly to suggestions for more funding and state support for Vermont's networks of hiking trails.

A member of the crowd at the event told the governor that trail programs get up to three-quarters of 1 percent of gasoline tax revenues, up to a cap of $370,000 per year. If the $370,000 cap were lifted, funding could be boosted by $120,000.

Shumlin rejected the idea out of hand. Gas tax revenues are declining in states like Vermont that levy the tax on a per-gallon basis, because high fuel prices have people driving less, Shumlin said.


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Meanwhile, the state's roads and bridges, which are maintained with gas tax revenues, need lots of work.

"I would recommend that you don't try the gas tax, for the simple reason that the gas tax is underperforming anyway," the governor said.

Someone else in the group suggested expanding the state's current use program, which now gives property tax breaks for farm and forest land parcels of 27 acres or more, to include smaller parcels when land owners allow recreation trails to be built across them.

Shumlin issued words of caution on that idea, too, noting that tax breaks for some land owners mean higher taxes for others.

"Every time you put a piece of land in the current use program, truthfully your neighbors are picking up the bill," he said. "And if you get down to really small pieces (of land) you've got to ask the question: Who's left paying for education in Vermont? And I think you've got to be a little careful about that."

The 56-year-old Shumlin grew up in Putney, where his parents started a company that organizes overseas tours and studies for U.S. students. After he graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Shumlin and his brother took over Putney Student Travel when their parents retired, and have grown the company to where it now partners with National Geographic in offering youth travel programs. Shumlin also has extensive real estate holdings. In 2010, he disclosed sole or part ownership of 18 properties - mainly rental properties in Putney and Brattleboro - six vehicles and a boat and a personal net worth of more than $10 million.

Shumlin, who is estranged from his wife and has two daughters in their early 20s, says he still has a connection to those who struggle in life, noting he overcame childhood dyslexia. "I learn differently," he has said on numerous occasions.

He frequently rebuffs Brock's criticisms that Vermont has an unfriendly business climate by citing his own successes, accusing Brock of running for "pessimist in chief."

Shumlin is relentlessly upbeat. Asked recently if he or state government made any mistakes in handling the response to widespread flooding from Tropical Storm Irene 14 months ago, he at first could cite none, then he said he should have gotten more sleep and eaten better than he did in the weeks following the storm.

He routinely tells his audiences that they are the best in the nation at whatever they do.

"You are the nucleus that keeps what I believe is the best trail network anywhere in America together, growing and serving Vermont's future," Shumlin said at the meeting of the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council.

Another of Shumlin's favorite rhetorical devices is to show the links between his listeners' agenda and his own. Since before his election to his first two-year term as governor in 2010, Shumlin has kept two goals front-and-center: moving Vermont as close as possible to a single-payer health care system and putting the state in the forefront of addressing climate change.

For example, he tied his efforts to promote local markets for Vermont farm products by saying it would keep more land open and free of development. That, he told the Trails and Greenways Council, gives the state's trail networks more room to grow.

"We're going to continue to invest in our agricultural heritage so that we can maintain our rural quality of life and keep our trail systems, our recreational systems, alive," he said.

Volunteers who maintain the state's trails also help in Vermont's health reform efforts, Shumlin said, arguing that hiking is excellent preventive medicine in the fight to curb obesity.

If current trends continue, "We are going to be the first generation of Americans and Vermonters who live less long than our parents because of obesity," he said. Those who work to build and maintain Vermont's hiking and cross-country ski trails are making "an incredible contribution to a sensible, affordable, healthy Vermont."

Shumlin loves talking up his Vermont roots, noting he's the first governor born in the state since Deane Davis left office in 1973. During a ride in the Ford Expedition in which he travels around the state Shumlin joined his driver, state police Detective Trooper Jimmy Wilborn, in telling a story of their travels in the days following Irene.

Many of the state's roads were washed out and the only way to reach stranded towns was by helicopter, the men recalled. On one trip, the chopper's GPS wasn't working. The pilot, from the Maine National Guard, wasn't familiar with Vermont's terrain.

Shumlin knew it well, Wilborn said. "He'd say, 'Just go a couple miles to the right of that (mountain) peak over there.' And he'd get us there. It was amazing."

They concluded that GPS actually stands for Gov. Peter Shumlin.