It’s difficult to know how much “once in a generation” money will actually reach the cash drawers of state and local governments. In late March a year ago, we received $1.25 billion. Shortly after the Biden presidency took over, another stimulus package passed with another $1.25 billion on the way. If the president’s two trillion dollar infrastructure bill passes, or anything close to it, we could be looking at another billion dollars, give or take.

A portion of that bounty will go to those who were crippled by the pandemic, but a much larger portion is being guided toward investments considered one-time and long term, not programs that obligate us to ongoing costs. That’s the hope, at least.

These considerations are supposed to be guided toward efforts that are “transformational.” An example would be our switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Once the conversation is made, the fear of having to retrace one’s steps is limited.

Another is the expansion of broadband to those who don’t have access or can’t afford what is available. Once this connection, or financial support is made, the trend line toward socioeconomic progress is put in motion.

As we prepare for the oceans of money coming our way, there is the natural tendency to fill vacuums, to use it to pick up those who need help, to correct inequities where possible and to build that which hasn’t been built, which, in Vermont’s case, means shoring up those areas not blessed with the economic strength of Northwestern Vermont, primarily Chittenden County.

Politically, it’s easier to take that huge dollop of peanut butter [all 2 billion plus of it] and spread it nice and evenly to every place that doesn’t have it. It reinforces the maxim that the hardest time to run a business well is when things are flush. [The hard times make the hard choices obvious.]

Part of what guides such political tendencies is the belief that those who sit at the top don’t need any help. It’s also guided by those in the Legislature, and other regulatory bodies, who use the power of their positions to try to neutralize those who represent large interests. A pertinent example is Vermont’s health care system and, in particular, the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Another is the University of Vermont, which, to most Vermonters is counterintuitive. How is an institution that prepares the state’s students for productive lives seen as anything other than an something that brings additional value to every corner of the state?

Perception. It sits upon the top of the hill overseeing Burlington and Lake Champlain to the West and Vermont’s Green Mountains to the East. It’s a well respected academic institution that attracts more out-of-state students than instate. [Otherwise it would be broke.] It’s also the most political environment in Vermont, including the State House in Montpelier. Logic doesn’t rule, the politics of self-interest does. UVM is arguably the most difficult place in Vermont to run and the Legislature, by extension, hasn’t been moved to help. There are forces within the Legislature whose motive it is to keep the university in its place, which means keeping the profile low and the involvement low.

The state suffers as a result. It’s a major disconnect that neutralizes the potential of what UVM could actually create. We are in the midst of a demographic crisis; we’re getting old quickly and failing to attract the young, or keeping the youth we have here. UVM is the number one generator of tomorrow’s qualified work force numbers. It’s also the number one force that keeps in place the workforce we do have.

Connect the dots. As the major research and development university in the state, how can those one-time dollars be used to attract industries that would like to pair their efforts with ours? How can those one time dollars be used to create tuition funds that would forever subsidize the cost of attending UVM? How can they be used to pay down the delayed maintenance costs that threaten future budgets? How can those once-in-a-generation dollars be used in a way to make UVM the catalyst for long-term sustainable growth that it could be?

It has to begin with UVM. It has to get its story out beyond the hill it sits upon. The school has to be understood for the strength and usefulness it holds for the state as a whole. That strength and usefulness has to be understood as the force for good that it is, which means countering the image that come with the elitism and comes with academics.

It begins with UVM but it’s a message that has to be paired with legislators whose interest and responsibility extends beyond the City of Burlington. Perhaps we’ve been limited in the past with our resources, but that is not the case today. To pass over this potential would be purposefully self-destructive. It’s time this conversation be kicked out of the back room and into full view. Give the average Vermonter a close up of what’s going on and what the potential could be and perhaps the politics would be more inclusive.

by Emerson Lynn


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