The refrain has become routine. When Gov. Phil Scott stood before legislators Thursday to deliver his state of the state speech, he repeated what he has said before, which is that our population continues to decline and the continued decline threatens the future of our cities and towns.
Mr. Scott said: “Of the five towns that have seen the most growth in recent years, four of them are in Chittenden County. And in the past 12 years, only three counties have added workers. The other 11 have lost a total of about 18,000. That’s more than the population of nearly every town or city in Vermont. Of the 180 legislators in this room, 106 of you come from counties that have lost workers.
“...this is what a demographic crisis looks like...Sustainable economic growth has become too hard and too rare in too many areas. It’s hurting people. It’s regressive. It’s creating regional inequity. And it’s by far the biggest and most immediate challenge to our state and the ability of government to help shape the future.”
As with any repeated message the tendency is to flip past it preferring to hear of other things, or to at least hear new proposals for the crisis that was yesterday’s news. It’s also difficult from a political perspective to focus on a crisis for which there are no clear paths forward. Politicians prefer to linger on things we can do, and leave the imponderables to others.
It’s not even clear that our legislators share the same concern, or believe our demographic decline is the crisis the governor says it is. If they did believe it to be a crisis of the magnitude the governor says, then all other issues would be framed in that context. For any program proposed, the question would be, how does that help? For every dollar spent, the question would be, how does that help?
The challenge the demographic crisis poses is one of time, much like our climate crisis. It’s not something that can be solved in the moment and the solutions are as costly as they are elusive, which is anathema to politicians whose clocks are marked in hours, not years and whose pocketbooks are dime thin.
That said, no problem can be solved if it’s not understood to be a problem. Connecting Vermonters to their troubled future is difficult because it’s tough to tie together cause and effect. It’s not understood that high property taxes can, in part, be attributed to fewer students in school. It’s not understood that the cost of municipal services is easier to afford the more households there are to share the burden. And it’s not understood what exactly legislators can do to make the demographic crisis go away. People don’t like the cold and they like living near big cities [Burlington is NOT a big city and we’re freezing cold.] What are we to do?
That’s the governor’s question. Part of the answer — the easy part conceptually — is to not do things that make us less attractive, i.e., make ourselves an even more expensive place to live, or allow our educational standards to wither, or our environment to be sullied. The hard part is figuring out how to keep the young we have from leaving [reduced tuitions?] and how to attract people from elsewhere to relocate here [harnessing the R&D engine of our higher education institutions to partner with innovative businesses?] It’s a complex task, as complex as anything we’ve faced.
The governor set the tone, the Legislature is underway, committees are tasked with their individual responsibilities, the objective of all — including voters — is to ask the question: If the crisis is demographic, then how will the next four months of the legislative session be spent to deal with it?
By Emerson Lynn