Gov. Peter Shumlin, during his 2014
State of the State address
Ringing in the New Year means ringing in a new legislative session in Montpelier: The 2014 legislative session opened on Tuesday and will continue until sometime in late April or May. As a quick reminder, the Vermont Legislature is unique in that it only meets for roughly a third of the year, and then adjourns for the remainder of the year. There are no full-time, year-round legislators in Vermont. Because of that short session, there is always a sense of urgency whenever the Legislature is in session in Montpelier.
There will be many differing agendas for legislators as the session gears up, but one person in Vermont gets the biggest pulpit on which to push for legislation. That bully pulpit is reserved for the elected leader of the state. On Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin gave his annual address to the Vermont Legislature.
In that speech, Shumlin essentially declared a war on drugs in Vermont, saying the costs to prosecute and incarcerate offenders has become too onerous for the state to continue to bear. This will probably come as a surprise to many who think of drug addiction, especially to heroin and opiates, as a more urban problem.
“Today, our state government spends more to imprison Vermonters than we do to support our colleges and universities, and our prison spending has doubled in the last nine years.”
The governor called drug addiction a public health crisis. Shumlin says the past decade has seen unprecedented growth in drug addiction and the related social costs that follows that addiction. The drain on Vermont law enforcement agencies, the courts, families, and the general public is significant, costing the state millions of dollars.
Shumlin outlined some aggressive plans to switch the fight from law enforcement and the courts to treatment and the health care system, which in the long run will save the state, and the taxpayers, significant amounts of money. In many ways Gov. Shumlin is first and foremost a businessman, and drug addictions are seriously impacting the state’s bottom line. That, as much as anything, appears to be one of the main drivers of this new initiative.
“All of the proposals I have discussed today are designed to reframe the way we solve drug addiction and drug crime in Vermont, attacking it first as the health crisis that it is, while simultaneously retooling our criminal justice system and strengthening law enforcement. This will not happen overnight. But these actions represent basic, good government response to an emergency. Just as you expected us to work across agencies and across state and local government to help us all recover from the devastation of a tropical storm, so too should you expect us to approach this crisis of drug addiction with coordination and effective action.
“All of us, together, will drive toward our goal of recovery by working with one another creatively, relentlessly, and without division. We can do this. I have tremendous hope for Vermont, and for our efforts to overcome this challenge and keep the Vermont that we cherish for generations to come.”
Of course, not everyone will agree with the governor that fighting drug abuse should be the state’s top priority. There are others, such as Rep. Ann Manwaring, who will push for continued education reform. She wrote a column in this paper recently clearly outlining things she’d like to see changed in how the state accounts for education and how it justifies the money spent on it.
Others will be pushing for continued health care reforms, and for moving the state down the path toward a single-payer system. Still others will focus on tourism funding, workforce training, and other economic development initiatives. Many legislators will have agendas that differ from the governor’s.
Still, only one person gets to give the “State of the State” address. As we said earlier, it’s a bully pulpit, and one that can be used to influence the course of an entire legislative session. Also, Shumlin has proven time and time again he can influence the course of discussion at the Statehouse. A few years ago, when he was Senate President Pro Tempore, he pushed through legislation that led to legalizing same sex marriages. Now he has an even bigger podium from which to influence the state’s course.
No doubt we’ll be hearing quite a bit over the next few months about the state’s new war on drug addiction. What remains to be seen is how that war will take shape.