Smith focuses on downtown vitality, child poverty, health care

Shap Smith
Shap Smith. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

(Editor’s Note: VTDigger is publishing profiles of the three lieutenant governor candidates in the Democratic primary Aug. 9. Republican Randy Brock isn’t included because he doesn’t face a primary. In addition, Boots Wardinski qualified for the ballot as a Progressive.)

Ending childhood poverty, encouraging downtown development — particularly in smaller communities — and improving health care access by expanding Dr. Dynasaur are the top three priorities for lieutenant governor candidate Shap Smith.

The House speaker said he believes a big chunk of the next generation is about to be lost to poverty. He also wants to expand early childhood education programs as part of his larger hope of helping kids in low-income households have a chance to succeed and not repeat the cycle of having too little for basic needs.

“I feel like we’re losing a whole generation,” Smith said in an interview last week. The effects, he said, ripple into the schools — where hungry children have more difficulty learning — and put pressure on social service programs and budgets.

“In a state like ours, and a country like ours, where we believe in equal opportunities, I think we’re falling down and we can do better,” he said.

A lawyer in a Burlington firm, Smith initially planned to run for governor but dropped out of that race after his wife, Melissa, was diagnosed with breast cancer. He entered the lieutenant governor’s race in May after her treatments were completed. People on the campaign trail ask how his wife is doing as frequently as they do about issues, he said.

His interest in expanding access to affordable health care, Smith said, was reinforced during his wife’s treatment. Out-of-pocket expenses were higher than expected after they read the fine print and because his wife’s treatment extended over two calendar years. His family, Smith said, had savings they could use for the additional several thousand dollars, but “for many families that would be the difference between solvency and bankruptcy, and goddammit, we can do better than that in this country.”

The Legislature allocated $100,000 to study expanding Dr. Dynasaur, a successful program for children, to include people up to 26 years old. According to advocates, more than 100,000 young people could qualify. Smith said one group that could benefit are out-of-state students who have to get supplemental insurance in Vermont.

But Smith said a big dilemma is that Dr. Dynasaur pays doctors Medicaid rates, which he said are too low, and exacerbate the shifting of costs from public health care programs onto private health care payers.

As speaker, Smith faced the hurdle every year of the Legislature trying to find sufficient money to pay for Medicaid programs, and he said it would be an ongoing challenge. One advantage of the Dr. Dynasaur proposal, Smith said, is that some of those covered won’t then have to depend on expensive emergency care.

On revitalizing downtowns, Smith said many larger Vermont communities have had successful redevelopments, including Rutland, Barre and St. Albans. He said those efforts need to be expanded to smaller communities, like his hometown of Morrisville. One way to make the finances work for downtown redevelopment, he said, is to place state workers in those locations and not on the outskirts. He pointed to Barre City Place as an example of a successful integration of state workers into a downtown space and Morrisville as an example where some work on the fringe of town.

One challenge, he said, is that approaches such as tax increment financing, where future increased tax revenues are used for infrastructure improvements, work better in larger communities than smaller ones because more money is generated.

Smith said he supported the proposal in Burlington to redevelop the downtown mall, including the construction of buildings 160 feet high. He said older and younger residents want walkable communities where they don’t necessarily need a car.

As lieutenant governor, in addition to the role of presiding over the Senate and being a key member of the Committee of Committees, which selects Senate chairs and committee memberships, Smith said he would use the office as a bully pulpit. And he said that given his legislative experience, he would be “ready Day One” if something happened to the governor.

Smith said he would not necessarily follow the lead of former Lt. Gov. Howard Dean, who maintained continuity after Gov. Richard Snelling died by keeping on all his Cabinet members. Smith said he would put the focus on people he could “work with effectively.”

Smith reported raising $120,000 for the race, including $30,000 from his brief campaign for governor last year, in his first campaign finance disclosure. He said he has well over $100,000 left to spend.

“The biggest problem is time,” he said, having entered the race later than his two primary opponents. “But based on the response we’ve been getting, I think we’re right there in the mix.”

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  • Bruce Wilkie

    Just another politician who has sold his soul to the highest bidder, in this case BIG WIND.

  • Above, Shap Smith is quoted as saying: “I feel like we’re losing a whole generation”.

    With that alarming statement provided, how in the world did the writer of this article, Mark Johnson, a very experienced writer intimately familiar with state government, not follow up by asking Mr. Smith what his role has been in “losing a whole generation”?

    Over the past six years as Speaker of the House, Shap Smith has held the second most powerful position in Vermont government, standing only behind Peter Shumlin. During this period, Smith walked in close to total lockstep with Mr. Shumlin and cannot escape responsibility for what has occurred.

    During those six years, Vermonters have witnessed this state spiral downward based on poor policy choices and terrible execution of way too many of the state’s operations. The people have effectively spoken loudly and clearly on Shumlin’s failed leadership and he will not be seeking re-election.

    Now if, Shap Smith, the second in command during the past six years expects to be elected Lieutenant Governor……he has to explain his role in creating an environment that leads him to say: “I feel like we’re losing a whole generation”.

  • Kim Fried

    Not a word about being the leader of the world in blasting off Vermont’s ridge tops to enrich his pals under the disguise of solving climate change. This guy promised that he was going to retire from politics but let us all down and decided their was still ways to continue to enrich special interest groups, his business and his friends-Paul Burns and Blittersdorf. It’s still not too late Mr. Speaker to once again change your mind and leave Montpelier and Vermonters alone. My vote won’t be wasted on you- Mr. Shumlin light, Vermont can do much, much better and it’s time.

  • Alex McHenry

    About 8 years ago when the house was debating marriage equality to replace civil unions the vote passed, but Jim Douglas vetoed it. Shap managed to get the veto overridden by a razor-thin margin, which might have included getting my rep in South Burlington, who opposed it, to call in sick that day, but I’m just speculating. Anyhow, I was incredibly impressed with Shap’s work that day, and he’s earned my vote. I hope Democratic undecideds will consider that you don’t need to have an untraditional style or career, or be outspoken to be progressive.

    I believe he is someone who gets things done quietly and effectively. Others like Zuckerman may have more outsider appeal, but it is Shap who can get it done. Thanks!

    • John Zuppa

      Shap and Zuckerman are both the antithesis to Vermont and it’s unique fabric of society…

      Shap pits neighbor against neighbor for the profit of Industrial Wind destruction…

      Zuckerman should try NYC…