My Turn: Douglas Taking Vermont on a Race to the Bottom

My Turn: Douglas Taking Vermont on a Race to the Bottom

By Brian Shupe

(This article ran in the March 30, 2009 Burlington Free Press)

When it comes to economic development, states across the nation generally choose one of two approaches. They either race to the top, or race to the bottom.

Racing to the bottom involves eliminating perceived barriers to development regardless of the implications. Protecting air and water quality becomes an unaffordable luxury. Community character is sacrificed to standards dictated by national franchises. Worker safety takes a back seat to profits, the social safety net is shredded, and wages and taxes are pushed lower to make business costs more “affordable.”

In contrast, racing to the top requires planning. It involves protecting the assets that create a competitive advantage. Guiding development with reasonable standards to protect public interests is essential, as is investing in infrastructure and communities. A healthy economic climate by definition encompasses a high quality of life and healthy environment to attract and retain entrepreneurs and innovators.

For the past 40 years, Vermont has, for the most part, raced to the top. And, for the most part, this strategy has worked. Vermont has nurtured a unique brand rooted in environmental stewardship, engaged citizens and a world-renowned landscape.

Consequently — according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce — for nearly three decades Vermont has consistently outpaced other Northeastern states with regard to job creation and housing development.

Between 1980 and 2007, the total number of jobs in the six New England states increased by 38 percent; in Vermont, the number of jobs increased by over 60 percent. Compared with the New England states (and New York), only New Hampshire saw a greater rate of job growth.

The number of housing units in New England increased by 28 percent since 1980, while the number in Vermont increased by nearly 40 percent. Only New Hampshire experienced a higher rate of housing development. And despite that higher growth, housing affordability in the Granite State has been comparable to Vermont.

These figures — which indicate that Vermont has fared well relative to the region — only speak to quantity. In terms of quality, Vermont has outperformed neighboring states in several measures related to the health of our environment, communities and residents.

The economic value of Vermont’s attractiveness as a destination for creative people with a business sense is well documented, most recently in a report released by the Council for Vermont’s Future entitled “Vermont in Transition: A Summary of Social, Economic and Environmental Trends.” That study found that Vermont’s powerful sense of place has attracted many of the business leaders who have helped shape and diversify the state’s economy in recent decades.

Unfortunately, Gov. Douglas has become frustrated with Vermont’s race to the top. He and his supporters are pushing for perceived short-term gain instead of real long-term prosperity. This penny-wise/pound-foolish philosophy puts Vermont’s future at risk. Douglas jeopardized tens of millions of dollars for the restoration of historic buildings in downtowns by dismantling the state’s historic preservation office. And he has repeatedly sought deep cuts in the Vermont Housing and Conservation Fund — a nationally recognized affordable housing and conservation program that represents the most successful investment in smart growth in the state’s history. Yes, state government needs to tighten its belt, but not around our necks.

The governor’s lack of vision is most glaringly evident in his insistent attacks on the state’s environmental protections under the guise of “permit reform.” He first justified rolling back environmental safeguards by claiming the system is broken, until the administration’s own data revealed the system is efficient, projects are rarely denied and appeals are uncommon. He then argued that eliminating environmental protections is necessary for economic advancement, despite three decades of economic data to the contrary.

Gov. Douglas’s economic development strategies will encourage sprawling development and environmental degradation in the hopes that prosperity and affordability will miraculously result. Vermonters care too much about the qualities that form the foundation of our economy, however, to follow the governor in his race to the bottom.