Anger flares as 50 people discuss state of economy
By Terri Hallenbeck
Free Press Staff Writer
December 6, 2007
ESSEX JUNCTION -- When Tom Licata asked Vermonters to join him to talk about Vermont'seconomy Wednesday night, he lit a fire under some 50 people, many of them angryabout government spending.
Licata, a Burlington resident who started the anti-tax group Vermonters for Economic Health, is urging people to sign a petition calling on the governor and the Legislature to make the state's economy their priority.
"I got angry, and rather than stay angry, I put that anger to use," Licata said in explaining why he launched the group.
Licata found plenty of anger in the crowd that gathered in the Holy Family Church Hall in Essex Junction and engaged in a lively exchange with several legislators who attended.
Before Licata had gone far into his presentation, he found himself in the midst of a debate over school consolidation. Licata lamented that Education Commissioner Richard Cate's proposal, released this week, to force school districts to consolidate, had
received a cool reception from the Legislature.
"Are you asking the Legislature to tell the folks back home that they've got to merge?" asked Sen. Jim Condos, D-Chittenden, reminding Licata that just a few weeks ago Essex, Essex Junction and Westford voted down a school merger.
Robert Maynard of Williston agreed: "Consolidation of school districts has not cut costs," he said. "It's not the silver bullet it appears to be."
Across the room, Leo Maguire of Essex Junction countered: "I'll tell you how many school districts we need in Vermont. One. We need one school district, and you know who's going to decide that? People like you and I."
Licata laid out the pressures facing state government -- from a decrease in federal support to crumbling roads at home. His comments did not align with or against any political party, but he suggested the state is in a financial bind that elected officials are not
In a petition to Gov. Jim Douglas and the Legislature, he states: "Our unsustainable and oppressive tax burdens need to be addressed with a comprehensive, Long-Term Economic Plan."
Duncan Harvey of Essex Junction, who has joined with Licata, said the economy must be elected leaders' main focus when the Legislature convenes next month. "I'm really worried if my grandchildren are going to be seventh-generation Vermonters," he said. "When January comes around, I want the economy and my children's future to be the No. 1 priority."
Licata's presentation ended with the complaint that the needs of the working class are being neglected while politicians pay attention to lobbyists fighting for special interests.
Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, took umbrage. "I want you to know the forgotten man doesn't exist," she said.
"Yes he does," came shouts from the crowd, setting off a heated exchange.
Maguire accused the Legislature of spending too much time on global warming and not enough worrying about how much debt the state faces.
"We talk about debt all the time," Snelling responded.
Snelling and other legislators defended efforts to generate jobs in Vermont, saying legislation passed last session will pay for work force training to allow Vermont companies to expand.
Many at the meeting said Vermont needs to do more to make the state business-friendly. James Ehlers of Colchester said the state doesn't offer businesses stability. He cited Vermont Yankee, whose license to operate will soon be up for renewal but which faces strong opposition from some in the state, as an example.
Businesses want more assurance that the state's energy rates will remain stable, he said. "I wouldn't be doing it here if I was starting now. It's too unpredictable."
Maynard, who said he works at IBM, said the company should have established a new manufacturing plant in Essex Junction several years ago, but did it instead in Fishkill, N.Y. The reason, he was told, was that taxes were too high and regulations were too cumbersome in Vermont.
Condos argued that those were not the reasons IBM officials cited.