(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.”