I saw former VT Governor Madeleine Kunin at an event recently. Sharp as ever and wearing a long, dignified career with justifiable pride as she discussed her latest creation.
The former governor was pushing the success of Emerge Vermont, which recruits and trains women to run for elective office.
Emerge Vermont is only the latest in a string of successes for Kunin – refugee, mother, House Appropriations Chair, Lt. Governor, Governor, professor, deputy education secretary, Ambassador to Switzerland, prolific author, advisor to many and so much more.
One she rarely gets credit for is something called the Office of Policy Research and Coordination. The name sounds really boring but it’s important.
The office was a crack team of smart policy folks that researched good policy ideas and proposed them to the legislature – a kind of mini-think tank within the governor’s office.
Sadly, subsequent Governor Dick Snelling ditched that office, I suspect to shrink government and save money. Subsequent governors Dean, Douglas, Shumlin, and Scott never saw fit to re-establish the office.
The policy office under Kunin was headed by Steve Kimbell, (my former business partner) a well-respected lawyer and for my money the most knowledgeable source on the state budget EVER. Kimbell’s deputy was Bernie Johnson, who held more institutional memory than anyone.
Other notables in that office were Ken Jones, Rick Minard, Elizabeth Ready, Martha Judy, Art Woolf, and George Hamilton. These people are highly respected in various circles for their policy expertise and government service.
Here’s the problem. When a governor or the legislature want to propose a new policy – say a tax on junk food (my favorite) – what do they do? In the days of the policy office, the issue would be researched. Experts from around the country would be contacted, a white paper might be written. A foundation of information would be laid so that the governor could propose the idea and the legislature could examine it.
Without the office, policy development is anecdotal. When former Governor Peter Shumlin stood up at his inaugural and declared opioids a threat to Vermont, he drew national attention. But a policy office could have helped him improve his proposal and help the legislature examine it more efficiently.
Today, the governor and legislature rely on friends, lobbyists, personal staff and ad hoc information to develop critical policy for Vermont’s future. That’s not good enough. The legislature has an office of Legislative Council, which advises committees on policy. But it is stretched thin and needs more depth.
As governor, I would bring back the Office of Policy Research and Coordination to jump-start a prosperity agenda fo the next generation.