Hoff Years Ushered in Landmark Changes in Vermont

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(Host) The tenure of former Governor Phil Hoff marked some important changes in the operations of state government in Vermont.

As VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, many of the key issues debated at the Statehouse in the 1960s are the same as those under discussion today.

(Kinzel) When Burlington Democrat Phil Hoff was elected governor in 1962 by roughly 1000 votes, few people could foresee the enormous changes that would take place in Vermont over the six years that Hoff was in office. These years would see new debates over education, welfare reform, the elimination of the poll tax and efforts to import power from Quebec.

State archivist Gregory Sanford says Hoff’s election in 1962 created a new feeling in Vermont:

(Sanford) “What the Hoff administration really allows is this incredible sense of possibility ¿ that we had not had a non-Republican administration since 1853, that everything seemed possible. This was something entirely new and I think what Governor Hoff was able to do was take that energy that sense of newness, which was frightening to aspects of the population but also exhilarating in many ways, and he came in and he said, ‘We really now have to plan,’ particularly against the backdrop of the interstate being built.”

Historian Joe Sherman thinks the election of Hoff, who was in his late 30s, also matched the national mood of the new youthful Administration of President John Kennedy in Washington:

(Sherman) “And basically I think his administration made a lot of Vermonters think that they were going to kind of join the modern world, be more of a state with some clout and some connection with the nation as a whole that prior to the Hoff election in ’62 Vermonters hadn’t felt. So I think there was the sense of being part of the nation that had not existed before.”

One of the key changes proposed by the Hoff administration involved the state’s welfare system.

Before Hoff was elected, welfare was considered the responsibility of individual towns and most of their welfare costs were paid for by using local property taxes. Many towns had poor farms where recipients could live and work. Hoff backed a new system that transferred the financial burden for welfare from the towns over to the state:

(Hoff) “And quite honestly, in some communities it was shameful the way people in poverty were treated. I mean, we had poor farms and I could go on¿ but the other side of the coin is of course in some ways it was understandable because there just wasn’t money.”

Hoff did not have a lot of success with the Legislature during his first term as governor but then the United States Supreme Court handed down its historic one person-one vote decision that resulted in the reapportionment of legislatures all across the country.

Prior to this decision, the Vermont House had one member for each town, or 246 members. There was one member from Burlington and one member from Sutton. After reapportionment there were 150 members in the House and districts were created to reflect population. The change had an enormous impact:

(Hoff) “And also since most cities, particularly in those days, were the depositories of Democrats it resulted in a decided shift in political power. So it wasn’t just a shift from rural Vermont to urban Vermont, but it was more importantly a shift from rather conservative policies to a good deal more progressive policies.”

The reapportionment of the Legislature allowed Governor Hoff to pursue welfare reform, new health care initiatives, an expansion of state aid to education, and the development of environmental policies during his remaining years in office.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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