Editorial: Peter Shumlin for Vermont Governor

The age-old question in American politics about whether government is the solution or the problem doesn’t appear to have even crossed the mind of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin. He’s been too busy assembling a body of work that makes a convincing case that an energetic, responsive government can play a vital role in helping Vermonters. The first-term Democrat has effectively mobilized the resources of government to respond to the completely unpredictable and catastrophic effects of weather and, on the other hand, the entirely foreseeable need for health care. If he hasn’t entirely settled the philosophical argument about the role of government, he has made a strong case for a second term.

Vermonters hardly needed Hurricane Sandy this week to vividly recall the magnitude of devastation that Tropical Storm Irene visited upon the state last year. People lost their homes, their livelihoods and, in a few cases, connections to the outside world. In the immediate aftermath, a return to normalcy seemed far off. The work is hardly complete, but the state regained its footing with astonishing speed.

To give too much credit to state government for this would be a disservice to the volunteers, local officials, neighbors and everyone else who contributed to the effort. But state government was instrumental. Shumlin deserves credit not just as the chief executive who is ultimately responsible for the orders emanating from Montpelier, but also as someone who from the first day of recovery resolutely proclaimed that the reconstructed Vermont would be stronger than the pre-Irene one. His personal attention and frequent visits to devastated communities provided a reassuring reminder that a mobilized and motivated state government was on the job.

Of course, Shumlin didn’t pitch himself to voters two years ago as a disaster-relief specialist, but rather as someone who would remake the state’s health-care system. He has made major progress in that direction. While members of Congress balked at offering a government-sponsored plan as an option for those shopping for health insurance, Shumlin has put Vermont on the path of establishing the first state-run single-payer health insurance system. If successful, Green Mountain Care would offer not just universal access but also some measure of cost control.

We do not underestimate the challenges ahead. On the other hand, the notion that government can effectively and efficiently run an insurance system that meets people’s health needs has long been established by Medicare, a program that enjoys near universal support except, perhaps, among national Republicans. On the state level, Shumlin has been a persuasive advocate of reform as a matter of economic development.

Liberating employers from the yearly challenge of absorbing insurance cost increases and the administrative burden of offering health benefits will make the state a much more attractive place in which to do business, he plausibly argues.

Randy Brock, Shumlin’s Republican opponent, justifiably faults the governor for having said far too little about how much Green Mountain Care will cost and, of course, how it will be paid for. The timeline established for the system calls for full implementation in 2017, with the decision about how to pay for it made in 2013. Even Shumlin’s trademark confidence cannot calm the anxiety that will persist until those questions are answered. On the other hand, we share his belief that overall health care costs don’t increase when the government replaces private insurers; if anything, some of the administrative costs are lowered by simplifying and streamlining the paperwork involved.

We also look forward to Shumlin following through on his pledge to push for more openness in the handling of law enforcement records. A state Supreme Court ruling this summer affirmed that agencies must release records of closed investigations that result in an arrest. Still unresolved, though, are questions about public access to records of investigations not involving an arrest — cases that could raise questions about police conduct, including the use of force. With state law ambiguous on that, Shumlin has said he would support statutory changes that make it clear that such records should be released, albeit in a way that protects the identity of innocent witnesses. Considering the enormous power vested in law enforcement officials, that sort of accountability is essential to guarding against abuse. We only wish the governor demonstrated equal concern about police use of stun guns in the wake of an incident that claimed the life of a Thetford man.

Shumlin’s opponent has enough experience as a state senator and auditor to more than hold his own in advocating for a smaller government. While Brock has raised some legitimate questions about the Shumlin administration, his promise to shrink government through more efficiency and a reordering of priorities strikes us as familiar, vague and rarely achieved. Shumlin has more than earned the right to carry on with health care reform and his unapologetically activist approach to government.