February 22, 2007

Big Picture Thinking for Vermont

Published today in the Colchester Sun and other weekly community newspapers owned by Lynn Publications, Inc.
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Big Picture Thinking
- David Usher

I was just thinking...In Vermont we have advocacy and special interest groups galore, some of which are very vocal and powerful. But who is looking at the big picture and the best future for our state? On specific issues, we trust our Governor and our Legislators to creatively use their intellect and power to make the best, if not always correct, decisions when conflicting views are vehemently argued in Montpelier's halls. If we don't like the outcomes, we simply elect new decision makers, but we seldom repeal policies (Laws simply encode policies so that the courts can have a crack at them if someone is aggrieved.). How can we expect long term thinking when our state leaders serve two year terms?

No group inside or outside government takes a comprehensive look at the future and the scenarios that may emerge from our current policies, demographics, Federal actions, and other important influences. Several groups poll people about how they feel about various issues and the media dutifully report the results before they migrate to dusty shelves or databases when their currency fades. But polls only take the temperature at a point in time. Who's looking after our climate?

Policy and politics are all about what people want in a democracy, but we often suffer from the law of unintended consequences because forces outside the full control of Vermont policy makers conspire to produce costs that we struggle to pay. Nationally, think Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, energy prices, and national defense. In Vermont, think Medicaid options, health care, permitting new development, corrections, education, social services, roads and bridges, etc.

What to do? Well, for starters we should agree to agree on a set of facts and assumptions about the future before enshrining apparent 'good ideas' into law. The true cost of a program into the future can be estimated and the legislative arithmetic should include the cost per capita for the people who are asked to fund it. Vermonters already pay more in taxes and incur a higher cost of living than in most other states, yet advocates argue that ever more unmet needs must be funded. Compounding the problem, Vermont's population is expected to grow slowly, only 7.5% in 10 years compared to 10% for the U.S. This means that any new Vermont policies and programs will be paid for by the taxpayers and ratepayers among the 652,000 of us in 2010. At the present rate of tax and cost of living increases, we will not be able to afford what we think we need or enable Vermont to be the place we desire.

We should convene a team of 6-8 of Vermont's best thinkers (You know who you are! If not, you could be selected by two or three well established no-ax-to-grind organizations in Vermont) from any walk of life with adequate support from a tiny staff of researchers and fact finders. The thinkers should leave their agendas, but not their values, at the door and spend sufficient time, perhaps a month or so of intensive preparation and research, considering likely outcomes. After that, they should collaborate using several days of "think-tank" time to thrash out two or three most likely scenarios and the resulting snapshot of Vermont in 5-7 years. The process should be repeated every two or three years with different thinkers but the same goal of updating the previous scenario(s) or creating a new one(s). A small permanent staff of 2-3 folks would keep the process alive, document the results, and serve as the resource for data and additional input as facts change.

The staff would be paid for their efforts and also the 'thinkers,' if they chose to accept compensation. This Vermont Policy Team could be housed at a university or in state government or could be a stand-alone 'Futures Authority' funded by the Legislature and private sector foundations.

This Vermont Policy Team would serve as a resource to all branches of state government and would be expected to be above the political fray. They would be available for consultation with both the Legislature and the Governor.

The alternative, it seems to me, is continued ad hoc policy making and a more costly and muddled future than Vermonters deserve from its leaders.
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