WILLISTON — Vermont has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, was the only state in the country to see per capita income rise in 2011, and just last week got news of a commercial venture that promises to bring 5,000 new jobs to the Northeast Kingdom.
As Election Day approaches, Gov. Peter Shumlin has relied on these stories and others to convince voters they’re better off now than they were when he took office two years ago.
But Republican challenger Randy Brock on Monday said the Democratic incumbent has used selective data to paper over a bleak economic landscape in which thousands of Vermonters still struggle to find work.
“The notion that we have the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation, I think, tremendously understates the seriousness of the problem and the fragility of our economy,” Brock said.
From inside a venture capital firm in Williston, Brock outlined a 25-point plan that he said will bring a needed resurgence. From the establishment of a “Department of Innovation” to the downsizing of state government to the creation of prefabricated “businesses in a box,” Brock said the state can spark growth in Vermont by reducing taxes, cutting red tape and courting out-of-state businesses.
On Nov. 6, Brock said, voters face a choice “between two directions and not between two men.”
“Do we continue to move in the direction of unbridled spending and government dependency that drives businesses and jobs out of Vermont? Or do we change course and focus on creating an economic environment that will attract new businesses and create new jobs?” Brock said. “When it comes to creating jobs and improving our economy, the differences between Gov. Shumlin and I could not be more stark.”
Shumlin’s campaign manager, Alex MacLean, said that in his call for a friendlier business climate, the Republican challenger seems to have torn a page from Shumlin’s own playbook.
“A close look at this ‘plan’ reveals an agenda that looks awfully familiar,” MacLean said. “If Randy actually wants to get his so-called plan accomplished, he should vote for Gov. Shumlin.”
As Brock talks about reining in government spending and sparking commerce, MacLean said, Shumlin is actually doing it.
“It’s easy to talk in platitudes about lowering costs and keeping taxes low. The hard part is actually getting it done, and Gov. Shumlin is getting it done,” MacLean said. “From balancing two budgets without raising broad-based taxes to creating thousands of jobs, Gov. Shumlin and his team are doing the hard work to get results.”
Brock, however, said the state needs far more decisive action than Shumlin has been willing to take. The downsizing of government “to make sure government lives within its means” figures prominently in his plan, and he said he would reduce the approximately 7,600-person state workforce by 10 percent over the next five years.
The fact that 25 percent of state employees are set to retire over the next five years, he said, means “this is the ideal time to … streamline government, because we can do so without having to have mass layoffs.”
Brock said he’ll use “force ranking” to determine which government programs should be cut and which deserve additional funding. Forcing state leaders to prioritize spending, he said, will reveal which programs to ax.
The programs Brock proposed eliminating Monday both center on renewable energy. Brock said Shumlin has given away millions of dollars in subsidies, credits and price guarantees that feather the nests of energy developers by forcing working-class Vermonters to buy electricity from solar, wind and hydro projects at above-market rates.
Among the more attention-grabbing proposals: “business in a box.” In much the same way national chains sell franchises, Brock said, the state of Vermont could put together prepackaged businesses for unemployed Vermonters.
“We package them with business plans, we package them with pre-assigned financing arrangements, we package them with expertise from retired executives and others who are familiar with a particular business model,” he said.
Brock said Vermont simultaneously needs to lure big corporations into Vermont.
“Perhaps our ‘man on the moon’ might be something like saying imagine if Vermont were the headquarters of a Fortune 1,000 company,” Brock said. “If Wal-Mart can be headquartered in (Bentonville), Ark., we can bring a Fortune 1,000 company to Vermont.”
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, headquartered in Waterbury, actually came in at No. 766 on the most recent Fortune 1,000 list. The Montpelier-based National Life Group was in the top 1,000 as recently as 2010.
Brock said the good-news labor statistics being pitched by the Shumlin campaign obscure a troubling economic trend. A shrinking workforce — not job growth — gets primary credit for the state’s comparatively impressive jobless rate, Brock said.
He said the workforce has shrunk by a seasonally adjusted 1,900 people since January 2011.
“And we don’t want that to happen,” he said. “We want it to go up.”
Brock said that by instituting a “parallel permitting” framework, entrepreneurs could save time by obtaining state and local permits simultaneously. Brock said he also would create “one-stop shopping” for developers by extracting permit functions now spread across multiple agencies into a single “super permitting agency.”
“We don’t want Vermont to look like New Jersey,” Brock said. “But we want businesses to be able to come to Vermont to prosper and to be able to grow jobs and opportunities for our children.”
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