On January 18, 2023

Covid showed us the value of public investment

By Jack Hoffman

Editor’s note: Jack Hoffman is senior analyst at Public Assets Institute (www.publicassets.org), a non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Montpelier. He is a resident of Marshfield currently living in France.

There were two threads running through Gov. Phil Scott’s fourth inaugural address last week. One was a clear, even refreshing, acknowledgement of the role that government and money played in the last few years to protect Vermonters and improve their lives. The other was the governor’s vision of a future Vermont where all communities, big and small, have the tools they need to be “more dynamic and vibrant.”

The challenge of this new biennium will be to keep these two threads connected. Continued public investment—government and money—will be required to provide the kind of infrastructure and services the governor wants Vermonters to have.

Governor Scott painted an inspiring picture of what Vermont could achieve. It’s hard to argue with his to-do list. He asked his audience to imagine a state where:

“Workers and families from Newport to Newfane have equal access to education, childcare, afterschool programs, quality healthcare, good jobs, and decent affordable housing.

“Vibrant communities include ‘mom and pop’ stores, restaurants and taverns and broadband ….

“Our largest cities and our smallest towns have safe welcoming neighborhoods, healthy downtowns, and reliable and resilient infrastructure.

“The costs of living and tax burden don’t grow faster than paychecks, so families keep more of what they earn, move up, and enjoy the quality of life they’ve worked so hard for.”

If that carried a whiff of pie-in-the-sky, the governor explained that Vermont had already begun to revitalize communities thanks to federal pandemic relief funds and economy stimulus money. Vermont individuals, businesses, organizations, and state and local governments received more than $10 billion in federal aid in the wake of the pandemic. That money, in turn, stimulated economic activity in Vermont, which produced record-breaking state tax revenues.

“This isn’t just high-flying rhetoric …,” the governor said. “With pandemic recovery funds, we are investing in fundamentals like broadband, water, sewer and stormwater systems, climate change resiliency, housing and economic revitalization.”

The governor went on to describe the many serious problems still facing the state: the effects of climate change, the lack of affordable housing, the need for more childcare and pre-k programs, the shortage of workers. He suggested regulatory changes could help with some problems. He also emphasized the need for teamwork, working together, and paying more attention to the individual needs of each community. Another option he seemed to suggest was reallocating money Vermont already spends, including some of the $2 billion in the Education Fund.

The governor appeared to rule out asking Vermont to contribute more to the effort to revitalize communities. The way to generate more tax revenue, he said, was not by raising taxes, but by making our communities more attractive to new families, new homeowners, new workers, and more schoolchildren. 

That’s a worthy goal, but improving communities to attract these newcomers will require continued investment after all of the additional federal funds have run out. Vermont has the resources, and we’ve seen what public investments can do. We just have to decide if we want a future, as the governor described, with equal access to education and childcare, quality healthcare, good jobs, decent affordable housing, safe welcoming neighborhoods, healthy downtowns, and reliable and resilient infrastructure.

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