Q: Should the work of a State Government be performed by a State Employee?
A: In general, yes. As State Auditor, I worked to hire more state employees to return work to government that was previously contracted to the private sector. This not only saved money, but more importantly, it retained institutional knowledge that made future work more productive. In my experience, both in the private and in the public sector, contracting out core functions frequently produces false economies when all elements of cost, quality, control and accountability are taken into account. While contracting out one-time tasks, temporary jobs and highly specialized work may make sense, all too often, in my experience, Vermont wastes significant sums of taxpayer money by contracting out repetitive work at exorbitant rates. Part of this stems from Vermont pricing state employee compensation for certain functions at pay rates that are unrealistically low compared to the market. As State Auditor, for example, using recognized market analysis, I increased compensation rates for professional staff by 31%, rates that were still far below those which the state had been paying outside contractors from large multi-national audit firms for the same work. I see similar issues today in state government, particularly in the information technology area. I am also concerned about our use of out-of-state private prisons for confinement of Vermont inmates and will examine carefully the cost-benefit rationale for doing so.
Q: As an elected official, how would you approve the overall safety of state employees?
A: We owe every state employee a safe and secure work environment. An effective risk assessment program is an essential first step. We cannot provide any assurance of safety without assessing the threat profile of an employee’s job and work environment. While there can never be an absolute assurance that tragedy will not strike, these risks can be minimized through assessment, evaluation, awareness and planning. Each agency should ensure that risk assessment and mitigation responsibilities are defined and that fundamental training for those involved in assessing risk is made available. Leaders in government need to find the best and most cost effective means to provide the structure necessary and to mitigate excessive exposures when identified. But this process does not need to be costly or especially labor-intensive. This is something that the best companies in the world have integrated into their businesses for years. I have led one of those functions for a major corporation.
Q: What is your plan to make the health care system more fair and equitable for working Vermonters?
- I would declare a War on Error in the Medicaid program. We need to review the recommendations arising from the several audits that have been done of our Medicaid system over the years and work towards implementing some of the commonsense cost-savings reforms that would make the system more efficient and cost effective. As State Auditor, I conducted a series of audits of Medicaid focused on identifying errors as well as fraud, waste and abuse. For example, my audit of the Medicaid prescription drug program, in which we looked at every Medicaid prescription over a two-year period, identified some $2 million in preventable errors. I will emphasize resumption of these types of audits, using either the State Auditor or internal audit resources on a priority basis. This is a proven technique that will not only pay for itself, but one that is likely to identify significant savings, especially in light of the growth in Medicaid enrollment.
- We must validate Medicaid eligibility for thousands of unvetted enrollees, especially the remainder of those who were enrolled automatically from VHAP and Catamount. Removing people who are not Medicaid-eligible should be prioritized to ensure that as many lower income recipients as possible are moved to the exchange, where Federal subsidies would make coverage more affordable for those people and at the same time increase reimbursement rates to providers to normal levels. Improving reimbursement rates to providers reduces the cost shift, and should have an effect on reducing private insurance costs, such as those borne by state employees.
- We should abandon the dysfunctional Vermont Health Connect and move to the federal exchange, just as 40 other states have done. Vermont needs a health care system that works. VHC is a chronically-broken system that has consumed more than $200 million in taxpayer money. After three years, it still does not work. Thousands of Vermonters continue to suffer from denied coverage, maddening delays and broken promises. Moving to the federal exchange has a cost, but nowhere near the $56 million in annual cost that Vermont is estimated to incur with VHC. The state funds that Vermont will save will be a significant contribution to avoiding future budget shortfalls or addressing truly important needs in health care.
- More broadly, my focus will be on building a stronger and more vibrant economy, one that encourages the creation of more and better jobs. We need to create a tone at the top that welcomes new business and new jobs, and that makes Vermont a more welcoming place for economic expansion, both to create new jobs and to retain the ones we have. I have committed during this campaign to find $100 million of new revenue that is not raised through new taxes or expanded fees, but through new and innovative ideas, a number of specifics about which I have already outlined elsewhere. This new revenue will be part of the foundation of the next generation economy and is designed to help stabilize the budget – taking the uncertainty out of the budget process.
Q: Will you support collective bargaining and vote against “Right to Work” legislation in any form?
A: I support collective bargaining and I recognize the valuable role that unions represent in balancing the sometimes competing interests of employers and employees. I am fully aware of the “agency fee” arrangement as it applies to state employees. I do not support changing it. As Lieutenant Governor, I have a dual role – representing management as the number two person in the Executive Branch, which is a Constitutional responsibility – and representing each and every Vermonter – especially members of the State Employees’ Union to whom government leaders owe a special duty. I plan to perform both of those tasks with dignity, fairness, integrity and impartiality. Governors and Lt. Governors should not pick sides and I strongly urge you to beware of leaders that do.
Q: What do you see as the role of State employees and how would you support them in their role?
A: State employees serve their friends and neighbors. They are the representatives of the government that belongs to all of us. We depend upon each other.
State employees are critical to the lives of every Vermonter. From interactions at the DMV, to the work of our DOT workers and yes, even the men and women at the Department of Taxes, our state employees make state government work. They also have an acute knowledge of what we’re doing right, and what we could do better in state government. If elected, I plan to regularly visit and listen to a wide variety of the men and women in our state workforce throughout government to identify what’s working and what needs improvement. We need to bring a number of state government processes into the 21st century and there’s no better partner, no better knowledge base to tap into then the hard-working people on the ground doing the work.
I will work to empower state employees. I believe that the state workforce is over-supervised and frequently so rule-driven that state employees do not have the flexibility to make decisions in areas in which they are capable. That situation needs to be addressed. It will make the work more rewarding and will improve the customer focus that we need.
In all of the jobs that I have held as a leader, both in the public and in the private sector, I have followed a practice of “noses in, fingers out.” That means I visit lots of people at every level in the organization; I ask lots of questions and I listen to what people tell me; I ask for observations, opinions and ideas – and I keep my mouth shut about what individual employees tell me. I am not there to second guess or to act as a second manager. I am there to really understand the stress and strain of the workplace, how to think about doing things better and to truly understand what’s going on “under the hood.” In my experience, state employees are a phenomenal resource for finding better was to do things; but, unfortunately, too few leaders ever ask for their advice.
Q: What mechanisms would you put in place to avoid budget shortfalls?
- Realistic budgets and forecasts. The current budget’s 4.8% 2017 revenue growth estimate is utterly unrealistic. We need to tell ourselves the truth
- Gradually increase the budget stabilization reserve (“rainy day”) levels; the current levels do not provide sufficient headroom.
- Respond quickly to adjust spending to match forecast levels when faced with unfavorable trends.
- Every agency should have in place action plans for responding to scenarios outlining their strategy and steps to be taken in advance of any revenue downgrade.
- I hate – absolutely hate – the practice of across the board cuts to deal with revenue problems. This practice guarantees mediocrity in everything we do, and there are some jobs in government that not only must be done, they must be done well. I also hate the practice of reducing staffing due to budget problems and then expecting a smaller staff to do everything that was done previously in the same manner. That practice never works.
- As I mentioned above, jobs and he economy is my major focus. By growing the economy, we can build a foundation that supports a vibrant and prosperous future. That is the best way to eliminate uncertainty in the budget process and provide stability to state employees and the private sector without the constant threat of budget cuts or an increased tax burden.
Q: What approach would you take to make higher education more affordable for Vermonters?
A: In 1975, tuition for UVM was $1,055 per year. Today, it’s $17,200. That is not only a huge dollar increase. It’s also an increase that is 3 ½ times the rate of inflation. In other words, higher education in general has increased in cost far more than it should have.
I have served as a trustee or foundation board member for four different colleges or universities. Higher education is a commitment for me and solving the cost problem is one on which I have been working hard – and with some success. It’s clear to me that we simply cannot continue with a system that in many cases leaves college graduates with debt levels that are unsustainable, especially if they enter careers, such as public service, in which pay is modest.
One of the main drivers of higher education cost is administrative overhead. Another is the fact that higher education, unlike almost every other segment of our economy has not improved productivity. Fortunately, some change is beginning to happen. Here are a few ideas:
- More and more colleges are examining how students can earn degrees in less time. If we can reduce the duration of college by even one semester, we will make a substantial reduction in cost. Programs such as the one offered by UVM and Vermont Law School that allow students to obtain both an undergraduate and a law degree in six years instead of the traditional seven years show great promise.
- Delivering more courses in high school that double for college credit will also help, at least in the case of those students who are capable of the effort required.
- Use of distance learning, integrated with residence courses, also has reduced the cost of many degrees.
- We should explore additional opportunities to use creative financing options, perhaps at least partially guaranteed by new forms of bonding, to lower interest costs on refinanced student loans.
- We should examine administrative overhead and evaluate if all of it is necessary. Both the State and Federal government need to evaluate the impact of regulation and mandates on higher education staffing.
- Despite resistance, we should look at faculty productivity, especially situations in which some faculty members earning six figure salaries teach as few as two courses per semester.
- We need to reevaluate the degree to which students and taxpayers have the ability to continue to fund research, sabbaticals and similar costs that apply almost exclusively to academia. The use of private funds, foundation support and similar external funding sources may need to be pursued more aggressively to cover non-core education costs.
- Vermont has among the very highest costs per capita for K-12 education in America, but we’re 49th in per capita spending on higher education. That ratio needs to be balanced, and, if done, could markedly reduce the cost of college for in-state students.
- Some politicians routinely promote “free” college plans. Scrutinize carefully how they propose to pay for them. Make sure that those who make these proposals have successfully completed sixth grade arithmetic.
Q: What would you do to ensure the viability of the state college system?
A: Vermont’s state colleges do a superb job and the statistics bear this out. Almost all of the points outlines in the question above are particularly relevant to this one.
Achieving a better balance between K-12 and higher education funding is critical. Independent studies commissioned by the state have confirmed that significant K-12 savings are possible. These savings are one component of potential additional funding for the state college system.
Q: Do you support a livable wage for Vermonters? If so, what do you think that amount should be?
A: No one should work 40 hours a week and be unable to live independently. However, the best way to help people to earn more is to create new and better paying jobs right here in Vermont. Mandating significant artificial wage rates will set us back in doing that. Even now, wages of less than $20 an hour still qualify employees for some state benefits. We need to smooth the “benefits cliff” so that work with increased wages is rewarded.
Reducing state government’s heavy reliance on out-of-state and in some cases foreign contractors is one way to improve our job climate. We also need to better link our workforce development programs with the needs of major employers. Just this week, the manager of a Northeast Kingdom plant with several hundred employees told me he had never been visited by a senior state official or by anyone from government inquiring about his workforce development needs. We must change this.
I’ve spoken with numerous employers that pay well above a “livable wage,” however they’re having great difficulty filling those jobs for a number of reasons:
- the effects of Vermont’s opiate epidemic,
- the need for better and more targeted workforce training,
- the declining value a high school diploma – particularly in science, technology, math and engineering
- the departure from Vermont of large numbers of 25 to 35-year-olds from our workforce to areas of the country that are perceived to be more affordable and
- the lack of increased business and economic activity, driven at least partially by Vermont’s economic uncertainty and the perception that the state is hostile to business.
Vermont’s new leaders must address each of these concerns, and we must address them now.
Q: Briefly state why the VSEA should endorse you and describe the type of assistance that you would be seeking from a VSEA endorsement.
A: There is no constituency more dependent upon or beholden to the state budget than our state workforce. I’ll work with the legislature and administration to make sure we’re on sound financial footing and that the promises made to state workers are not in jeopardy, year in and year out, because of poor management of the state budget.
With $3.8 billion in unfunded liabilities for state employee and teacher pension funds and heath care, Vermont needs a leader who understands the huge threat this poses to your financial security. I do not want to see us continue on the path of fiscal unsustainability that we have been on for the past six years. It is a path that can lead to Vermont being unable to meet the pension commitments on which you based your retirement future. I have spoken about these risks for many years, starting when I was your State Auditor and continuing in the Senate. Working with the Retired State Employees Association, I successfully pushed through legislation in 2008 that corrected the calculation of the COLA index upon which increases in retirement payments is based to better reflect real costs to retirees. I believe that if elected I will bring a depth of understanding of the issues, a history of competent leadership and a demonstrated commitment to integrity to do the right thing.
I’ll be a leader who our state employees can trust, with a proven record of harmoniously leading state employees. I was the first State Auditor in years not to have a single grievance filed during my term in office. Vermonters need someone who will work to bring certainty back to state government after six years of uncertainty. An endorsement from the VSEA would say volumes about state employees’ commitment to return integrity and transparency to government and to join with me as a partner in the important work ahead for all of us.