Econ plan

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(HOST) As two-thousand-and-six draws to a close, commentator Tim McQuiston is thinking about the new year, and the opportunity for new prosperity.

(MCQUISTON) Perhaps the most interesting result of the recent election is that both the Republican governor and the Democratic Legislature can rightly claim a mandate from the people. Whether they can resolve, and indeed resist, the political temptations of that situation remains to be seen.

One thing I would like to see come January is the writing of a comprehensive plan for economic development. This is long overdue, and to my mind any plan would be better than no plan at all. But both the governor and Legislature would have to get seriously behind it, or no progress could be made.

With the exception of Richard Snelling’s brief second tour of duty in 1991, no governor and no Legislature has had a definitive plan of action for more than twenty years.

And though the legislature has to lend its support, it’s the governor that has to lead such an effort. We’ve had general plans with general goals, like encourage green business, improve affordability and raise average wages.

That’s fine. But we’ve lacked a detailed plan to reach those goals.

While wages in Vermont are at historic highs, they are still below the national average. And much of the progress Vermont has made has been due to changing demographics. In recent years, Vermont has been a magnet for professionals from out of state.

While the ship of state has encouraged this trend over the last twenty years or so, it has ridden the wave of success, not steered it.

In my experience as an economic reporter, covering Vermont since the late 1980s, the governor’s office has spent a lot of time putting out fires, like when a plant closes. And there will always be fires. But if we had a strong economic plan and the political will to implement it, the fires would be fewer and less extreme.

Recent governors have blamed the Legislature and the two-year term for their inability to develop a definitive, long-range plan. But governors like Kunin, Dean and Douglas have served multiple terms without the worry of losing a re-election. The two-year term is no excuse.

Of course, the Legislature can get in the way. But the Legislature has not been presented with a definitive economic development plan of action. Given the vacuum, they’ve done their own thing. That’s only natural.

But there are plenty of ideas that we could incorporate into a long range economic plan.

Exports are a major part of the Vermont economy. Exports to China are taking off. There have got to be opportunities there. How about the tax code. Taxes are neither good nor evil. They’re a tool. Use them the way Snelling used them to create the burgeoning captive insurance industry. Look at alternative energy. This industry is growing in Vermont mainly because of the coincidence of our environmental ethos. We have strengths and weaknesses. Play to our strengths.

Here we are, staring at a new year. The national economy is softening. But the governor and the legislature are politically secure; so they could afford to spend some time charting a detailed course toward a new prosperity.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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