BY BILL SCHUBART | FEBRUARY 27, 2020
On Vermont Public Radio’s “Vermont Edition” show Friday, Jan. 31 Governor Scott, responding to a barrage of listener and interviewer questions about how he will address Vermont’s challenges, kept answering with “Show me a plan,” and “Where’s the plan?”
Imagine a volleyball court with three sides, a triangular net with equilateral sides, three teams, and multiple balls being thrown back and forth between the three sides. This may help you see how the government, nonprofit and for-profit sectors juggle society’s needs.
The balls swatted from side to side are the current social, environmental and economic challenges, kept airborne by deep divisions in our philosophy of governing.
Arguably, two of our most important needs are public education and health care.
Under both the Vermont Constitution and the federal Constitution, public education in Vermont is the sole responsibility of the government. Meanwhile, as we adjust to a declining student population and to students being siphoned off by private and religious schools — paid for in part by tax-funded vouchers — our expectations of schools expand. Private academies can pick and choose their ideal customers, while public schools must welcome all comers. Schools today are expected to remediate the impact on children of multiple “adverse childhood experiences” such as homelessness, hunger, abuse, emotional disorders, addicted parents and lack of access to health care, all problems that should be addressed upstream by the three sectors working together. Such cross-sector efforts do occur but are largely uncoordinated. If business, philanthropy and government looked strategically at the challenges in public education today, we could surely find more effective and cost-efficient solutions.
Health care, another vital service for Vermonters, also hangs in the inter-sectional airspace. In the ’80s, Vermont decided not to issue certificates of need, essentially operating permits, to for-profit hospitals, although many clinics, dentists, group practices, and urgent care centers are, in fact, for-profit businesses. Some clinics, like the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury, are nonprofits. Like public schools, nonprofit hospitals have an “obligation to treat” anyone presenting — businesses don’t. And health insurance is available from both for-profit and not-for-profit companies. This mash-up of business, government and nonprofit sectors largely provides Vermonters with quality health care, but it’s often limited to those who can afford it.
Some sectors try to work together, but their collaborations are rarely strategic or coordinated. Challenges in the broader social safety net: homelessness, hunger, lack of access to health care, inadequate public transportation and child care bounce between the three sectors, with government assuming certain functions and contracting to businesses and nonprofits for others. Many businesses do their share, opting to pay livable wages and contributing to health care coverage, child care and retirement. But even with all three sectors chipping in to fight homelessness and hunger, the combined effort is still inadequate to meet the needs of too many Vermonters and child care capacity is declining.
On the predatory side, corrections have traditionally been a government function, but years of politically and even racially motivated criminal justice practice filled our government prisons to overcapacity, leaving the business sector to enter the market. Vermont has about 250 prisoners housed in a for-profit prison in Mississippi with limited oversight or accountability by the Vermont Department of Corrections. “Concierge prisons” have opened in the West for those who can afford their luxuries — a prime example of laissez-faire politics. Economic development bounces ineffectively between all three sectors.
Traditionally, the government sector has managed the design and oversight of public education, a postal system, state and federal highway networks, public safety, the national defense, the criminal justice system and legislative and judicial systems. Teddy Roosevelt added environmental and monopoly regulation. Franklin Roosevelt added power generation and distribution and economic development, both now shared to varying degrees with the business sector. FDR’s signature addition was Social Security. Nixon and others favored adding health care, but that still remains under debate 50 years later, available only to those who can afford the insurance. About 20,000 Vermonters have no health insurance and many who do, can’t afford the copays.
Neoliberals and conservatives argue passionately for the privatization of the postal system, corrections, education, the national parks, public safety, highway management, Social Security and even the national defense which currently uses contracted mercenary forces to a limited degree. They believe that minimal government will produce the best social and economic outcomes and that the business sector — read, deregulated, low-taxed capitalism — is a more powerful delivery system than government, leaving unmet objectives to the philanthropic sector.
Liberals tend to have greater trust in government, but want a government free of influence-peddling money. They advocate for additional government programs that require either realignment of current government expenditures or additional taxation, making the case that simply touting a thriving economy, the benchmarks of which are stock market indicators and employment figures, ignores the real-life struggles that the employed have keeping up with lagging compensation growth and accelerating living costs.
But sadly, at this point in our history, the liberal-conservative spectrum is evaporating in heat generated by those on both sides who have despaired of democracy’s capacity to achieve anything on their behalf. This is self-defeating. We have the resources but lack leadership and strategy. We must agree on how to use Vermont’s powerful government ($6.1 billion), business ($32 billion gross domestic product), and nonprofit sectors ($6 billion) most efficiently and effectively to make Vermont a more secure place to live, while setting new rules for collaboration and accountability.
Governor, we have no plan and no plan for even making a plan. Who’s leading?