Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Gov. Douglas: A Man for the Eisenhower Era

Someday, Vermont will elect a governor for the 21st century.

Until then, though, we'll be saddled with a guy stuck in the mid-20th century Eisenhower era that shaped his early years. He'll continue to govern as if the outdated perspectives of the 1950s are what's best for Vermont.

Along the way, he's helping push the state down the long, perilous flight of climate change, and he may just take the Vermont economy with him.

It was bad enough to watch Gov. Jim Douglas veto healthcare reform and, last month, meaningful campaign-finance reform, which would have diminished the influence of big money on Vermont's grassroots election process.

But the real tragedy is his recent veto of comprehensive, carefully thought-out legislation to stem global warming and improve the state's energy efficiency. With that veto, Douglas has done more than just prove how stubborn a seemingly nice guy can be when his core political principles are offended. He's made the state more vulnerable to climate change, the key issue of our time and the biggest threat to the American way of life -- and indeed, to human life on the planet.

And the governor has essentially pointed a gun straight at the heart of several key Vermont industries.

The crown jewel of this year's legislative session was passage of the comprehensive bill on climate change and energy efficiency. Among other things, the bill would promote solar energy by restoring state tax credits for homeowners. It would jumpstart larger hydro, wind and solar projects by allowing "group net metering" -- meaning these projects could generate revenue by feeding energy back into the grid. It would enable businesses and homes to be heated at lower cost (a big reason advocates for low-income people support the bill). By encouraging efficiency, it would reduce Vermont's reliance on expensive, distant, and increasingly unstable sources of petroleum. It would reduce air pollution.

Closer to home for many Vermonters, the legislation would provide hope for the tourism, maple sugaring and ski industries that pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the state every year.

Why is that true? If global warming continues, maple trees soon won't grow here anymore in abundance. You'll be lucky to get good maple syrup north of the border. The brilliant fall displays of color will be a distant memory related by grandparents. There, too, leaf-peeper tourist dollars will flow northward.

And then there's the ski industry. When there are crocuses coming up in the garden in mid-January, you don't have to look any farther than your own backyard to know that, unless we stem the killing heat that is engulfing our planet, Vermont skiing will melt and die.

Should the legislature failed to overturn Douglas's veto -- the most likely scenario -- it will be interesting to see how all this plays out politically next year.

If truth in advertising prevailed in political slogans, Gov . Douglas would run for reelection in 2008 under a banner that read, "I Don't Really Care about Vermo andnt Tourism." Or maybe it could be, "I Put Corn Syrup on My Pancakes."

Better yet -- "Winter in Vermont: It's Way Overrated."

His toughest critics have started to wonder if the governor has just forgotten about representative government. Yes, he's one of the few people elected on a statewide ballot. But it's abundantly clear that at this point he doesn't share the political philosophy of most Vermonters, or their abundantly demonstrated interest in curbing climate change. The only surviving Republican governor in New England, Douglas "represents" a state that has the country's most progressive congressional delegation and has for years now sent solid majorities of Democrats to both houses of the legislature.

Yet taking a page from George W. Bush's playbook, he has in shown remarkably little flexibility in shifting his no-tax stance even when fresh government revenue can legitimately be part of the solution. He seems to have little interest in accommodating the majority opposition or innovating in the face of crisis.

Gov, Douglas thinks we shouldn't fiddle with the old "tried and true" approach to providing Vermont's energy needs. That's a recipe for fiddling while Vermont burns. Scientists are telling us we've got just a coup le decades to address climate change -- or face catastrophe on a global level.

The governor's key rationale for vetoing the energy bill was that it imposed a "new tax" on Vermont Yankee, the state's sole nuclear power plant and a facility under the ownership of the multi-billion-dollar Entergy company. He ignores the fact that the bill taxes wind power and nuclear power equally -- and would eliminate an unconscionable tax break that has long benefited Vermont Yankee.

Would Entergy in any way be threatened if a new tax free prevailed for Vermont Yankee? Would the company even really notice? Does an elephant care if a single gnat lands on its rear end?

And yet Governor Douglas has wielded his veto pen to defend out-of-state energy giant whileVermont grows hotter every year. For now, it appears we'll have to keep waiting for him to drop his Ronald Reagan imitation and get real about working with the legislature to craft ways of dealing with the day's most pressing challenges. Even Reagan raised taxes when it was obviously needed. Mr. Douglas apparently lacks that kind of political courage.

And so we wait for an alternative. Looking at the Democrats' bullpen, you have to conclude that Douglas will remain governor for a long time. And even if the Democrats do manage to come up with a strong gubernatorial candidate, there's always the danger that the Progressives will sabotage the election by running their own candidate and again hand the election to Douglas -- as they so stupidly did when Douglas was first elected governor in 2002.

In the meantime, Vermonters can look forward to warmer winters that more closely resemble November misery, dwindling revenues from tourism, sugaring and skiing, and higher costs for heating and transportation.

Unless the legislature miraculously finds a way to override Douglas's veto on a two-thirds vote, Vermont's majority -- and the climate along with it -- will continue to fume.

-- 30 --

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