The Job Ahead

September 9, 2011, Times Argus, Editorial Page

Gov. Peter Shumlin has been hopscotching across Vermont to areas wrecked by Tropical Storm Irene, helping to bolster morale by reminding people that state government has not forgotten them.

In the first two weeks after the floods, his administration has had a big job coming to grips with the disaster, assessing the state’s needs, securing necessary federal help and responding to emergencies. Soon, however, Shumlin will have to leave the helicopter aside and ensconce himself in Montpelier and chart the course ahead.

Legislative leaders have been hesitant about calling the Legislature in for a special session, waiting for cues from Shumlin, who initially saw no reason for lawmakers to return to Montpelier. Some individual legislators, on the other hand, have been adamant about the need for the Legislature to involve itself in decisions that must be made before January.

Rep. Oliver Olsen, a Republican from Jamaica who represents several badly damaged towns, said a number of important policy questions would have to be addressed in the next few months, apart from the financial questions growing out of the floods.

The Emergency Board, which is made up of the heads of the Legislature’s money committees, is empowered to allocate up to 2 percent of the state budget in an emergency. That would be about $25 million. Whether or not the state will need to spend more than $25 million, Olsen and others say the Legislature ought to have a chance to weigh in on a variety of pressing policy questions.

For example, what is going to happen to the state office complex in Waterbury, and the Vermont State Hospital, which were severely damaged by the flood? Spending money to rebuild an office complex in a flood-prone area may not be the smartest move. A long-deferred decision on a new Vermont State Hospital now seems inevitable. Final decisions are not likely before January, but the Legislature may well want to get to work on the committee process required to look at these issues.

Meanwhile, Shumlin has his work ahead of him, not just as a morale-boosting, helicopter-riding governor, but as a chief executive at the head of an administration with many challenges. When Shumlin sits down with Transportation Secretary Brian Searles, they will have much to discuss about priorities in road reconstruction. It is unlikely the state will be able to rebuild everywhere immediately. Even with the help of the federal government, the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, the job of developing priorities for roads and bridges will be a difficult one.

When he sits down with Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, Shumlin will have much to talk about in relation to the state budget.

When he sits down with Human Services Secretary Douglas Racine, he will have much to talk about in relation to the adequacy of state programs hindered by lack of personnel and damage to the state’s computer system.

When he sits down with Natural Resources Secretary Deborah Markowitz, there will be much to discuss about the environmental damage and the ongoing threats of pollution caused by the floods.

Each of these agencies is probably compiling long lists of projects to respond to urgent human, natural or budgetary needs created by the floods.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, the progressive Democrat from Washington County, is one of those who thinks a special session of the Legislature will be necessary. Pollina has created a role for himself as the progressive burr under Shumlin’s saddle. In the present case, he is making himself into a defender of the Legislature’s role in policymaking.

The crisis of Irene is not a political one, however. The challenge before Shumlin is to marshal the good will and determination of all Vermonters into a program with broad support for the rapid reconstruction of the state. In order to build broad support, he may not be able to go it alone. He may have to get the Legislature back into town and get members from all parties on his side and on the side of the people of Vermont.