Joe Benning
Vermont State Senator

Caledonia/Orange District

Thoughts on Government

     In 1777 Vermont's founders were in the process of fighting off territorial claims by New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and had just declared independence from Great Britain, when they sat down to write up a constitution for a new Republic.  Literally embroiled in a war to win protection of their individual rights, they did not wish to create a government that would erode those very same rights.  So they set up a plan of government designed to maximize individual freedom and minimize the red tape, bureaucracy and burdensome taxes that had been imposed on them by external colonial governments and royal decree from across the Atlantic.

 

     It was a brilliant plan.  It focused government on three basic concerns: education, public safety and infrastructure.  As the first constitution to abolish slavery, it also demonstrated the authors were not afraid of having Vermont lead the nation with progressive ideas.  At the same time it balanced individual freedom with individual responsibility in a community setting, hence the motto "Freedom & Unity."  Most importantly, the new constitution also contained clear directions for future generations who wished to preserve these newly-found blessings of liberty.  It warned legislators to act with moderation and frugality when enacting laws; it called upon the people to watch their legislators with constant vigilance and to hold them accountable should they go astray from those principles.

     Unfortunately, especially over the last generation, both legislators and the people who were supposed to be watching them lost their constitutional focus.  In a well-intentioned attempt to provide all things for all people, we have entangled ourselves with so many rules, regulations and programs that the very principles our state's founders presented to us as our birthright are in jeopardy.  We find ourselves hundreds of millions of dollars in debt at a time when our economy struggles to survive.  With an aging population and a shrinking work force, we are simply no longer able to afford the taxes necessary to sustain even those basic responsibilities our founders cherished most.   

     Take, for instance, our public education system.  Faced with declining student enrollment, ever-increasing bureaucracy and fewer dollars to work with, it is struggling in its mission to produce graduates who can compete in a global marketplace.  In the area of public safety, many of our courthouses are threatened with closure or fewer workdays in a desperate attempt to save money.  With infrastructure, witness the condition of every road and bridge in this state.  These are all signs that Vermont has been doing too much for too many for too long with too little. This cannot continue.

     To change our current condition, legislators should not look to the federal government for handouts.  (Our ancestors would be appalled at the very idea!)  To begin with, the federal government is in worse shape than we are, and it is high time every state government and federal legislator recognized that fact.  If federal dollars come our way at all, they should be used strictly to improve existing infrastructure (roads, bridges, buildings, etc.) and never to support the payroll of a new employee or new program.  Too often we've been enticed with federal money to create paid positions and programs, only to have to shift those costs onto state taxpayers when the federal money has dried up.  We need to stop relying on the federal government and get back to the basic functions a state government is responsible for.

     I love this state and I love its people.  I truly believe we can get ourselves out of the predicament we've created by sending to Montpelier legislators who are committed to reversing the explosive growth in state government and who can demonstrate discipline with fiscal responsibility.  There is no reason to point fingers or lay blame on anyone, we simply need to get on with the business of redesigning government.  We do that by examining every law, every program, every board, every commission and every employee, and then asking ourselves one simple question: "Is this necessary, or is this nice?"  Those things that are necessary, we keep.  Those things that are nice, we prioritize.  If something nice helps define us as a community and we can afford it, we think about keeping it.  If not, then we must have the courage to eliminate it.

     I'd like to see state government return its focus to those three basic functions: education, public safety and infrastructure.  I'm committed to the concept that the government we enjoy is a government we can afford.  I stand for the principle of maintaining individual rights while preserving our community with individual responsibility.  If you'd like to see Vermont return to these roots, I'd appreciate your support. 

 
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