By Don Keelan
Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Gov. Phil Scott on GNAT-TV, Bennington County’s local access television station. The 60-minute Q&A covered a wide range of topics, one being education.
The governor informed me that the education budget was, by far, the largest expenditure of state funds. He noted that out of a total state spending of approximately $6 billion, education absorbed about $1.7 billion, or 28 percent.
He further noted that Vermont’s student population was now at approximately 73,000 students, down from 103,000 not too long ago. This equates to per-pupil spending of $23,287. All of this could have been the basis of further discussion with the governor until he mentioned to me that he has no control over the spending.
The governor was quite clear — the Vermont Agency of Education is an independent entity and is not answerable to him. (He does, however, appoint several of the board members.)
This got me thinking about other agencies and entities that are state/legislature created that the governor has no control over. It was only a few weeks ago that I discovered that there was one such agency, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation.
The governor pointed out to me there were others and, upon further research, I discovered there are boards, commissions and nonprofits that are, for the most part, created and funded by the state, but for which our elected chief executive has little or no control. On the contrary, such organizations have significant control over the lives of Vermont citizens and companies.
One such entity is The Public Utility Commission. The commission and its three-member board is backed up by the equivalent of a medium-size internal law firm and controls how we use and pay for the electric and gas systems that are in Vermont.
Another all-powerful board that was created only eight years ago is the Green Mountain Care Board. The decisions of this five-member board (interesting, not one of them has any medical credentials) have a direct impact on Vermonters when it comes to their health care and how much they pay for it. There is no hospital in Vermont that can expand its services without first obtaining approval (over $1 million) from the GMCB.
A recent decision by the GMCB, approving double-digit rate increases for Blue Cross and MVP, has drawn a great deal of controversy. No wonder, it will be costing most Vermonters and companies millions of dollars. The governor had absolutely no say in the decision.
The Vermont Housing Finance Agency is another creature of the Legislature, also operating as an independent nonprofit in control of $517 million dollars in assets (2017). When it comes to housing and the issuance of tax credits, VHFA has absolute control. And not unlike VEIC, it too uses an out-of-state audit firm, in this case, Cohn Resnick LLP, of Baltimore, Maryland. Why?
Let me be clear about one important point: All of the above independent boards, agencies, and nonprofits are governed by knowledgeable individuals. They are called upon to make decisions that have a direct and indirect impact on Vermont companies and residents. However, I don’t recall ever seeing their names on the November ballot.
When Vermonters elect their governor, they expect that he or she will be in charge — overseeing state operations through staff or by cabinet members. But something has happened in Vermont over the last 25 years. The Legislature has moved critical decision-making away from the administration and into the hands of independent boards, commissions, and nonprofit agencies that have the power to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, act in a quasi-judicial manner and report only to their boards.
Vermonters pride themselves on the fact that every two years they can exercise their vote and remove an elected member of the Legislature or administration. Try to remove a board member of the PUC or GMCB, who might just have another four years to go with his/her term.
We may think that the administration/legislature is in control of the governance of Vermont residents and companies — but it’s not really so.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.