If you’ve been a fan of our site for any amount of time, you might have noticed that we feature a number of policies and projects from Vermont as paradigms of local self-reliance. That’s why we had three of our policy experts sit down and discuss what is going right in the Green Mountain State.
How did Vermont come to have more small businesses and fewer big-box stores per capita than any other state? Why does it have a much higher rate of rooftop solar installation than many sunnier regions? And how has Vermont become a leader in developing community-based Internet access solutions?
In this episode of the Building Local Power podcast, host and Community Broadband Networks initiative director Christopher Mitchell sits down with co-director and Community-Scaled Economy initiative director Stacy Mitchell and Energy Democracy initiative director John Farrell to answer those questions.
The three all note the high level of civic engagement in Vermont and the way that it contributes to an environment conducive to strong local economies.
“[T]his has been bottom up and it’s not that there’s something magical about [Vermont’s] state government being enlightened so much as it is that citizens have really driven this process… It speaks to the importance of hands-on democracy and the role that we all have in that,” argues Stacy Mitchell of the myriad pro-local economy policies happening in the Green Mountain State.
Throughout the conversation, Stacy, John, and Chris all mention research and reporting on the exciting ways that Vermont is enabling local self-reliance:
- Vermont’s Act 250 Policy — This policy, which Stacy mentions as enabling responsible economic development, ensures local and regional review for any large-scale development project.
- Are Lightly Regulated States Really More Friendly to Small Businesses? — Our 2012 takedown of a popular ranking of “business friendliness,” complete with maps!
- Shining Cities 2018: How Smart Local Policies Are Expanding Solar Power in America, Environment America — The Burlington metropolitan area gets some love in this report from Environment America for how much rooftop solar capacity per capita there is.
- The 2018 Community Power State Scorecard — In the recent update to our Community Power Map, we pulled the information for all of the states at how best they enable local renewable energy. Vermont’s score is referenced in this conversation.
- Podcast: Why Local Self-Reliance (Episode 22) — David Morris talks with Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks initiative about why the message of local self-reliance is as relevant today as it was when ILSR opened its doors in 1974. This wide-ranging conversation examines the rising concentration of economic power and cities’ responses.
- Local Energy Rules: Mountains Beyond Mountains: How Green Mountain Power Became More Than An Electric Utility — John interviews Green Mountain Power’s CEO Mary Powell about why the utility has moved to a benefit corporation structure that ensures that their investments benefit the local economy.
- MuniNetworks.org Tag: Vermont — As Christopher mentions, MuniNetworks.org’s coverage of all the different projects in Vermont are covered very well on our blog including the history of Burlington Telecom, EC Fiber, and a number of small-scale Internet access projects.
The group recommend a number of items for our audience, including:
- Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean, available at your local independent bookstore from IndieBound.
- Stacy also recommends a talk at the University of Southern Maine regarding Democracy in Chains from the author, Nancy MacLean. Embedded below:
- Christopher recommends both the book series and Netflix show, Altered Carbon. Book series available at your local independent bookstore from IndieBound. Season One on Netflix.
|Christopher Mitchell:||This is John Farrell, Chris Mitchell, and Stacy Mitchell bringing you Building Local Power. Hey John, you just came in my office, and all of a sudden, flipping through your phone, you had something extremely exciting to share. What’s going on?|
|John Farrell:||I have seen the greatest cat videos, Chris. I have to show you one now.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||No, I actually don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. This actually is relating to a big campaign that we’ve talked about before with Xcel Energy. You have been trying to restrain me from going after some people we might regard as troll-ish, but you caught sight of a very odd phenomenon on our Facebook page.|
|John Farrell:||That’s right, Chris. I was just looking at a response that I got back to some comments on our Facebook feed about this discussion around a bill in the legislature. Somebody said, “You have a good point there,” and I think that might be the first time that’s happened in the history of the internet.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Right, someone who initially started off disagreeing with you.|
|John Farrell:||Quite strongly.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||So I’m Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the first Mitchell’s voice you’ll hear on this call. We also just heard from John Farrell who works on our energy work. Hey John.|
|John Farrell:||Hey Chris.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||And I want to bring in Stacy Mitchell, the other Mitchell, the Portland Mitchell. Welcome back to the show, Stacy.|
|Stacy Mitchell:||Nice to be with you.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Stacy is co-director, she’s technically our boss, so if we’re fired next week, you’ll know why, and also does all of our independent business work. I do the computer internet related stuff, and —|
|John Farrell:||Yeah, Chris just does tech support. Thanks for hosting.|
|Stacy Mitchell:||Chris, you shouldn’t say and stuff, you should say what you actually do.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||I run the community broadband networks program, which increasingly does well when I’m gone for weeks at a time, which is giving me an identity crisis, clearly.
But today, we’re gonna build on John’s enthusiasm and excitement for cat videos, also for the internet now being a force for good. We want to talk about a state that’s doing some really great things on policy that’s actually helping local communities to maximize their local resources to be really great places to live in.
This is the first of a few shows we’d like to do in which we pick a geography and we talk about a number of policies that they’ve done over the years. And to just foreshadow that, we know that we want to talk about North Dakota because they have a number of really innovative policies that were really bringing benefits to them long before all of the fracking and the oil boom. I think sometimes people misidentify a source of their strong economy as just the oil boom.
But we’re going to talk about three issues, one from each of our programs, and I think Stacy, yours is the one that really helps set a frame overall. What is Vermont doing to make sure that local businesses can really do well?
|Stacy Mitchell:||Vermont has this great policy that I think every state should have. It’s called Act 250, and it was adopted quite a long time ago back in the 1970s when the interstate highway was first coming through Vermont. The citizens of the state recognized that that could lead to all kinds of development around the highway, and they wanted to think about what that development should look like, how it should be structured in a way that would be most beneficial to residents and to the local economy.
And so Vermont adopted this policy, and it is a policy that requires anything large, so if you want to build a big housing subdivision or a large store or shopping center, anything that’s over a certain size, you not only have to go through the local planning process in that particular community, but you also have to go through a regional review where all of the communities in that region review the project recognizing that because it’s large, it’s gonna have this effect on the whole region.
What’s great about it is … and I should say the review includes looking at things like how much tax revenue will this generate versus how much will it cost us to provide public services, what are the benefits to the community that come from this, what are the economic benefits versus some of the economic costs, that kind of thing, as well as the environmental impact of a project.
And what’s nice about it is that it means that developers, and I’m thinking particularly of big box and shopping mall developers, they can’t come into a region and say to a community, “Hey, we want to build this big store and if you don’t accept us on our terms, exactly what we want to do, we’re just gonna build it in the next town over,” and they can pit towns against one another. Vermont doesn’t have that problem.
|Christopher Mitchell:||And is the reason that they don’t have that problem because basically, and it’s a little bit odd, but there’s no way for them to escape it, because if they want to go anywhere in the state, then they have to go through this process?|
|Stacy Mitchell:||Exactly. And the way it’s set up is it’s … although it’s a state law, it’s actually carried out by these regional boards, and the boards are comprised of representatives of all the towns in a region. So it really makes the communities in a region have to think together about what’s in their best interest.
We see a lot of development in other places where yeah, this is good for this particular suburb, but it hurts the region as a whole, and this makes communities think, as I said, collectively together about what’s really in their best interest, and it gives them leverage, ’cause not only can they say no, but they can also say to the developer, “Here are the terms. Here are the things you need to change about this project to make it work.” And they have the power to do that in a way that’s very difficult for an individual community to do.
|John Farrell:||It sounds like this issue of retail development, Stacy, is a lot like the old, the prisoner’s dilemma, right? Where the only actually solution for the prisoners is to act cooperatively, but any one community for example, in that prisoner dilemma game, could win by cheating on the other ones and offering incentives for example to a Wal-Mart to come in. Collectively, everybody loses if there’s a lot of Wal-Marts, but if everybody stands together and has the same review process, then they can be successful together.|
|Stacy Mitchell:||That’s absolutely right, and it goes in both directions in the sense that a community that looks at say a Wal-Mart project and says, “Okay, instead of being 200,000 square feet,” which is like four football fields in size coming into a very small town let’s say, “Instead of that, we’re okay with Wal-Mart as long as you do a small store that’s downtown. So you can be part of the community and you can compete here, but you just have to do it in a way that fits and doesn’t overwhelm the local economy.”
And now in most regions of the country, if you say that to Wal-Mart, they say, “No, sorry. We’re just gonna build in the next town over, and because we’re gonna build such a huge store, it’s gonna have this effect that’s gonna be for miles and miles and miles, and it’s still gonna kill off your local businesses even if you don’t take us directly.”
And so it gives communities a lot of leverage, and the result in Vermont is that Wal-Mart has only five stores in the state, and three of those stores are in small existing buildings downtown. Only two of them are sort of the more traditional kind of Wal-Mart, and even those are smaller than usual that you see in other parts of the country. This is true for all the other big box stores. They’re in Vermont, but not in a way that just totally overwhelms the local economy. So they’re a part of it, but they’re not this dominant force the way they are elsewhere.
One effect of that is that Vermont has more small businesses per capita than any other state in the country.
|Christopher Mitchell:||Let’s talk about that for a second because one of the reactions that I have to that is just thinking a small business owner would be thinking, oh, it’s great that my large competitors that would come in and take over the entire economy, that they can’t come in, but is this a hassle for small businesses to go through?|
|Stacy Mitchell:||Well, in the case of Act 250 because it is only really triggered at a certain size threshold, unless you’re an independent retailer that’s opening a really big store, it’s probably not going to affect you. But I think your point is a good one, and there are certainly … in Vermont is a place that has a lot of laws related to protecting the environment, making sure that their towns stay cohesive, that there’s not a lot of sprawl. They have a lot of regulations around historic preservation.
There are a lot of different regulations and rules in Vermont, but what I think is interesting is that the kinds of policies that they’ve seemed to have adopted, at least the evidence of the fact that they have lots of small businesses and really have a growing number of small businesses and a very healthy local economy in that regard, the evidence is that their policies have been thoughtful and that even if there’s a bit of a hassle that’s an inevitable part of that for local business owners, what they succeed in preserving is an environment that’s actually very conducive for local businesses.
|Christopher Mitchell:||But when I look at some of the kinds of publications that get a lot of headlines, sort of the best places for small businesses, the worst places to be a small business, Vermont never seems to do very well on those lists.|
|Stacy Mitchell:||A few years ago, there was a ranking like that that came out, which states are most friendly to small businesses, and Vermont was near the bottom of the list. They got an F. A bunch of other states got an F. And then at the top of the list you had states like Texas, you know, which there are very few regulations. They have very few land use regulations and other kinds of rules.
I decided to spend a little bit of time actually dissecting that, and so I created some maps of the U.S. that show number of small businesses per capita, and also the change in small businesses, so looking at over the last 10 years which states are really seeing growth in small businesses. It was fascinating ’cause it was almost in many ways a reverse … like Texas is one of the … It’s really right at the bottom in terms of being small business friendly when you look at, well how many small businesses are actually there? And Vermont’s at the top.
So it suggests that regulation isn’t so simple, that the solution isn’t about more or less regulation, but really what kinds of rules are you writing and are you writing rules that actually create, in the case of land use rules, a built environment that’s very conducive to local entrepreneurs or are you by having no rules creating a very sort of sprawling environment that for a lot of reasons works better for big national chains. It’s an environment that local entrepreneurs have a very hard time getting a foothold in. I think you really see that when you actually look at the hard numbers.
|Christopher Mitchell:||While we’re talking about rankings, we’re gonna come back in just a second after this short, interstitial, non-obtrusive, non-ad thank you note to talk about rankings in Solar PV thanks to John.|
|Stacy Mitchell:||I just want to take a minute to thank everyone who’s been a donor to ILSR. We really appreciate the support. If you enjoy this podcast and haven’t yet become a donor, please consider making a donation to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Your financial support not only underwrites this podcast, keeping it ad-free, but also helps us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website, and all the technical assistance we provide to policy makers and citizens.
Every year, ILSR’s small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to ILSR.org and click on the donate button. That’s ILSR.org. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. One great thing you can do is to rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Ratings help us reach a wider audience, so it’s hugely helpful. Thank you.
|Christopher Mitchell:||You can also rate and review Community Broadband Bits or Local Energy Rules, which is John’s podcast, and he did not go with Rules with a Z, the way that I advised him to.
But speaking about these rankings, John, tell us what we should be looking at in terms of an important ranking coming out of Vermont with clean energy.
|John Farrell:||You know, as Stacy was talking about the sort of unexpected nature of digging into these state rankings, there’s a report out by Environment America that looks at the rankings of most metropolitan areas in terms of the amount of solar energy that’s installed.
In Burlington, which is of course up near the northern end of Vermont and the northern part of the country, ranks 11th in the United States in solar PV capacity per capita, which means that it’s one of the solar hotspots in the country despite having one of the weaker solar resources.
I think the lesson with Burlington is similar to Stacy’s experience with retail development, which is that it’s really policy that helps set up the appropriate environment for the growth of local clean energy, and not as much the quality of the resource.
|Christopher Mitchell:||John, Vermont is located pretty far north, and it seems like a part of the country that I would not think of as being so great for solar in particular. What are some of the policies that they’ve used to try to unlock this important technology or our energy future?|
|John Farrell:||There’s a couple different policies I think that are particularly important. One key thing to understand is that most energy policy is generally set at the state level, so when we’re talking about Burlington Vermont being very successful with solar, we’re really talking a lot about the state being very successful in setting goals.
There’s a couple things. One is that the state requires that utilities that procure renewable energy like solar do sell from small scale sources, and there are about 20 states that have similar policies across the country.
A second key piece is having what’s called shared renewable energy, or community renewable energy, which is to say that for folks who don’t have a sunny rooftop, that there’s a way for them to invest in a solar array maybe down the block or maybe on a church nearby or in an open field near town to get a share of their electricity from solar without having to buy it themselves.
So those are kind of the policies that support that kind of distributed solar development that allow Burlington to develop a lot of solar in a way that other cities might not, despite not having as sunny a locale as other places that are very successful with solar.
|Stacy Mitchell:||Does Vermont stand out in terms of these policies? I mean, I think there are other states that have some level of that, but when you just look at them from a policy perspective, are they beyond everybody else or are there other states that are in a similar place?|
|John Farrell:||There are other states that do pretty well. ILSR just released what we call our community power scorecard last month. It does a state-by-state ranking, and Vermont scores kind of in the upper middle of the pack, but along with a lot of other states that have similar or effective policies.
I think there’s two other things going for Vermont that are not happening in other states. One is that they have a presumptive approval for small scale solar that they don’t have in other states. So if you put a solar array on your roof, normally you would have to go through a regulatory process to get approval to connect that to the grid, and what Vermont has adopted state-wide is a policy called presumptive approval, which means that if nobody objects, like the utility company or anybody else within 10 days, then that project is approved and you get to install it and connect it to the grid. And so that really helps streamline the process.
The second thing that’s going on in Vermont is that in many states, in 30 different states like Vermont, utilities are monopoly corporations, and so they have a reserved service territory, a reserved population that can only buy power from them, and it’s the only state that has a company, Green Mountain Power, that is a benefit corporation. It’s registered as a benefit corporation, and I think that really changes the perspective and the service that you get from that kind of company that can focus more on things that customers are interested in.
|Stacy Mitchell:||For people who don’t know, what is a benefit corporation?|
|John Farrell:||The way I like to describe it … well, there’s a couple ways to describe it. One is in an interview I actually did with Mary Powell for our Local Energy Rules podcast a couple years ago, she described wanting to change the company into the Ben & Jerry’s of the utility sector.
So if you think about Ben & Jerry’s, it’s about eating delicious ice cream, but that that money is going to other social goods. That’s the same idea here with the utility company is that they can think beyond the bottom line of its shareholders to the environmental benefits, to the benefits of the communities that they serve. And you definitely see that in the kinds of things they’re doing. They are increasing compensation for customers that have solar on their rooftop, when in other states those utility companies, same utility companies are fighting to reduce that compensation. They’ve mapped out their local grid system to make it easier for people to identify where they can install solar, and they’re also financing things for customers like batteries or cold climate heat pumps, ways for them to save energy or to become more resilient, and that the utility is helping provide to those folks that are helping them to pay for them over time.
|Stacy Mitchell:||What’s the origin of that? There’s so many utilities that you’ve documented that are absolutely dragging their heels and worse when it comes to enabling their customers to do distributed power themselves, how is it that Vermont has this utility that’s going completely in the other direction? Is it just a matter of who’s in charge?|
|John Farrell:||I think it is. I’d like to joke that it’s in the ice cream up there, but I think it really … When I talked to Mary Powell, who’s the CEO of Green Mountain Power, for our podcast, it was very clear that it wasn’t an externally imposed thing, like she became the CEO and was very interested in kind of a customer-centric culture change at the utility company. And as they were thinking through this, they were thinking, one way that we can do this is by becoming a benefit corporation, by showing our customers we care about more than just our bottom line.
And so I think that is both exciting that a utility company can come to that realization, but also a little frustrating when you realize there’s not necessarily anything that we can do from the outside to get other companies to do the same.
|Christopher Mitchell:||Are there other large electric companies in Vermont that are fighting against this? Is this the kind of thing where you might just have the right people and they don’t have to worry about the kind of people that we would have to worry about in Minnesota if Excel wanted to oppose this or was setting a different standard? Vermont is special in terms of being fairly distributed, it doesn’t have large cities. It’s very good for the kinds of policies ILSR wants to have because it’s very not centralized.
And yet I’m trying to figure out what lessons we could really draw for other states.
|John Farrell:||I think that’s a really good question. The challenge here is present across almost the entire country, which is simply that because there’s no competition, being a benefit corporation isn’t a competitive advantage for Green Mountain Power. It’s not like they’re gonna get more customers by doing this, unfortunately.
There are plenty of utilities in Vermont, other utilities, different kinds of utilities with different ownership structures as well as other utilities similar to Green Mountain Power that oppose a lot of the things that they’re doing, that don’t offer them to their customers, that have testified in front of public regulators against the kinds of things that Green Mountain Power is doing or the kinds of policies that they have favored to allow customers to produce more of their own energies.
So I think that offers a couple lessons. One is that it’s not necessarily something special to Vermont because these other utilities in Vermont are not doing these things, and so I don’t think it means that you have to be in a particular state, in a particular geography, or particular demographics in order to have this kind of customer focus. And in fact, there’s a lot of discussion about energy as a service instead of energy as a commodity in the electricity business, and there’s a lot of utilities out there, at least speaking from the top, like they care about this kind of thing, that they want to be customer focused.
But what we’ve seen is that when the rubber hits the road, when we get to where regulations are being set or when we’re at the legislature, those utilities are pretty consistently against the policies that would be considered customer-centric, like Green Mountain Power has supported.
|Christopher Mitchell:||In some ways that’s actually a good segue into the thing that I was gonna talk about regarding internet access in Vermont, because we started off by talking about things that Vermont is doing right, although for the program that I want to talk about is actually the people that happen to be in Vermont more so than being enabled by Vermont.|
|John Farrell:||So I would love to talk to you about Vermont, Chris, because I know Burlington Vermont was kind of one of the early leaders in community owned broadband networks with a city owned electric company that was able to go into broadband.
I know that not everything turned out the way that folks hoped there, and I’m curious have they been able to make something of that anyway?
|Christopher Mitchell:||Burlington has a special place in my heart because the first case study I worked on when I came to ILSR was about Burlington Vermont, which at that time in 2007 was doing very exciting things. In fact, a municipal fiber network that was in a city that had an electric department, but because of the kinds of infighting we often see in bureaucracies, the electric department had nothing to do with the fiber project.
Later mayor … several years later, basically I would say destroyed the project. Others would say that Burlington Fiber had some problems already even before that relating to how it was built in a costly manner to provide incredible benefits, but in a way that would have been very difficult for it to become financially feasible even if it was well run.
So Burlington actually went from being in some ways a role model to being a strong disappointment for those of us that would like to see municipal networks, although within Burlington, the results were also mixed in the sense that it had a lot of debt and it was not able to pay back all of its debt. It had to break a contract with Citi Bank, although Citi Bank being a huge, nasty company that didn’t properly review its lending, I don’t feel particularly bad for them.
But at any rate, it created some economic hardship in the city’s budget because of bad decisions that were made, is now being privatized, but has really helped local businesses and local residents with lower bills and much better services. So it’s a mixed bag on the whole in the end.
|John Farrell:||One thing I’m curious about, Chris, with the Burlington example, is that I think it’s held up among some as a real challenge in terms of the way that the financials played out for the city, but on the other hand, that’s in part because I feel like these community owned networks are often treated a little bit differently from other city provided services where they’re expected to make money on their own and not necessarily be paid for out of general fund tax revenues. Is that true?|
|Christopher Mitchell:||It’s a really good question. I think if you look at municipal water departments and municipal electrical departments, they are expected to pay 100% of their own costs. And they have, in fact, monopoly service territories often in order to make sure that that happens.
Now, with municipal broadband networks, they are also typically expected to pay 100% of their costs, and they’re often built, when they’re built in a city-wide fashion, with an expectation that there will be a lot of borrowing and that will be paid back entirely with the cost of the network.
There are some communities, including in western Massachusetts and Colorado, Michigan now, where communities are saying, “We’re gonna build networks like we build our roads,” which is to say they are partially funded by user fees. And in the case of a network, it would be overwhelmingly funded by user fees, but not entirely, which is to say that a city government might subsidize a network with some other form of taxpayer dollars in the way that we do our roads, because our roads create all kinds of indirect benefits, spillover benefits. We can’t really recover those directly, so we just fund them out of the tax base.
But I want to make sure that we get to the thing that I really wanted to talk about in Vermont —
|John Farrell:||Yeah, well I was gonna say, Chris, maybe instead of making you talk about the thing you didn’t want to talk about, we could ask you about what you were interested in talking about in terms of community networks in Vermont.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Oddly enough, it was a really good setup to get into this, because the people, or one of the people in particular, Tim Nulty, who was behind the Burlington Telecom network when it was doing really well, and was pushed out by the mayor, who I would say sunk the project, he went on to form Central Vermont Fiber Network, called EC Fiber. That’s a project that looked for federal lending in the stimulus program, didn’t get it, and went on to issue debt to anyone who wanted to participate … basically people who believed in the project.
They had a number of funders step up, and that’s gone on to broaden very, very widely. They started building a network that’s now connecting people in more than 25 towns, including … I don’t remember how it is off the top of my head, but a not insubstantial number of towns entirely for every resident within the community.
It’s a nonprofit approach, and these communities actually share ownership in it. That’s been an incredibly successful project, full fiber optic network. It’s incredibly exciting. That actually led to state legislation that allowed other communities to aggregate their communities together and form communications union districts. I have to be a little cautious with that because other states have local improvement districts or local utility districts or special improvement districts. In Vermont, it’s called communication union districts.
|John Farrell:||Chris, that reminds me of work that you’ve done in other states where you have particularly successful cities or communities that have done community owned networks, but then are not often allowed to expand into surrounding communities that would like to take service.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Yes, that’s definitely an issue in a lot of states because the big incumbents don’t want the competition, and they certainly don’t want a successful network that brings competition to expand easily. So in Vermont, one of the things that we find is that Burlington certainly will be able to expand, and actually under the private ownership, which remains much more community focused than anything like Comcast or Verizon would do, they will be expanding to nearby areas.
But the rest of Vermont that’s not in Chittenden County there where Burlington is, it’s hard to build a municipal network at the scale you’re talking about, 2600 people. You know, for a municipal network, you’re often looking at 10,000 people, 20,000 people as kind of a minimum. There have been success stories that are smaller than that, but it’s much harder. So this brings those people together and allows them to create that scale by forming their resources together basically … and there’s another project in central Vermont that’s taking off on that.
|Stacy Mitchell:||It’s interesting that that came about because some citizens stepped in and took a leadership role, created a model, and that the state policy came later. The state policy was really responding to something that was happening from the bottom up.
One of the things that I’ve noticed when I visited Vermont and doing work there over the years is that there’s an incredible civic infrastructure there. There are lots of community organizations. Not just formal kind of state-wide nonprofits, but also just local grassroots groups, people organize, put together meetings, do things really … there’s a lot of social and civic capital it seems that exist in that state.
It strikes me that if we were to go looking, we would probably find that a lot of the good policies that have come out of the state have really arisen that way more than anything else … and it’s a reminder that democracy works best from the bottom up.
|Christopher Mitchell:||Yes, I absolutely agree. I don’t want to say too many negative things about Vermont’s state government, because I think that they have learned from this. We had a lot of frustration over the years in that we felt that some of the bigger providers like Comcast and others had too much control and that the governor was very influenced by the telephone company, which had been Verizon then was sold to a company that went bankrupt a few times and has generally done a miserable job of delivering service, but nonetheless seemed to have a lot of sway over the public service commission and the governor’s office.
But nonetheless, the bureaucracy of the state government and the governor, I think they have learned and they’re looking at this approach and thinking, “Wow, this is pretty good.” And so some of the state subsidy programs to build infrastructure are going to EC Fiber and may be available then to other projects like it. But it certainly was a slog to get there.
One of the things that I’ve really loved about Vermont in getting to know it is this public meeting, the town meeting day where they talk about these things. A lot of these votes have to happen at town meeting day, where people come together face to face, it’s a reasonable number of people, many of them know their families and things like that. It’s kind of in some ways an idealized version of what we think of with New England direct democracy and that sort of thing. So, that’s inspiring.
But the other piece of it is is that a lot of times, these people are very fiscally conservative, and I think sometimes people get a wrong picture of Vermont because it is a very progressive state in many ways, but many of the conversation that I’ve seen happen are about how to make sure that you’re really being fiscally conservative and fiscally responsible and not overpaying for things, which is I think one of the reasons that the Burlington telecom problems really rippled across the state and may have harmed some other efforts, because people took it really seriously.
And I don’t know if either one of you has seen that, but I don’t think of this as a state that raises taxes very easily. They have strong fights about it.
|Stacy Mitchell:||Well that’s exactly what led in part to Act 250 being adopted, was a recognition that sprawling development is actually very expensive for governments. When you’re providing services across these big sprawling developments and you have new development coming in and then old development being left idle or half used, when you look at the cost of the infrastructure and the public services for that, it’s far more expensive.
So part of what drove Vermont to have a sort of sharper land use policy was this sense of we can’t afford that, we have to be smart about our dollars, and that means we have to make smart decisions about what’s gonna be the durable kind of development that’s gonna last well into the future and be efficient in the sense that we’re gonna get a lot of value out of it economically for what we have to put in in terms of infrastructure.
So I think that’s absolutely right. The state, you’re right, it has this reputation as being very liberal, but you spend time there, you recognize that a lot of it is actually very conservative in a very historic sense of what conservative means.
|Christopher Mitchell:||So as we’re getting ready to wrap up here, I just wanted to note that I’ve tried to really keep it brief in an overview of what’s happening in Vermont, but we’ve done a really good job documenting it on our muninetworks.org website. That’s M-U-N-I networks dot org. Thanks to Lisa for doing a lot of writing about what’s happening there.
So if you really want the details, you should check that out. But I want to end with a question to Stacy, because I’ve been thinking about this. ILSR, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance was formed specifically out of the idea that if you wanted to be locally self-reliant, you didn’t have to move to Vermont. We want to celebrate Vermont, and they’re doing a lot of things we should learn from, but we want to say that you can do these things in Portland Maine, in Minneapolis and St. Paul Minnesota, and in much larger places.
So I wonder if you can just reflect on that a little bit.
|Stacy Mitchell:||Yeah, I think that what’s interesting in this whole last part of our conversation about the idea that this has really been bottom up and it’s not that there’s something magical about the state government being enlightened so much as it is that citizens have really driven this process, and the good things that have happened in this state.
It really speaks to the importance of kind of hands-on democracy and the role that we all have in that. And I think I also want to say that while there’s something about a small place, like a state government in a state the size of Vermont is very accessible to people in a way that’s maybe not true in a bigger state, that cities can also work this way … that what you can do at the neighborhood level and the accessibility of your city council and the powers that cities have is also right there for the taking for people organizing and getting hold of.
So I think the lessons here really can apply in any kind of geography.
|John Farrell:||I just want to make a plug for us to call this podcast episode “There’s Nothing Magical About Vermont.”|
|Christopher Mitchell:||In praise of Vermont, where nothing magical happens.|
|Stacy Mitchell:||Well this has been a great conversation and I appreciate my colleagues John Farrell and Chris Mitchell for joining us today. I want to end the show just by asking if you guys have any reading or watching recommendations for people. John?|
|John Farrell:||I’ve been watching a lot of videos about how to tile, which I’ve been doing the past couple weeks. But in honor of Mother’s Day, my mom has recommended the book to me Democracy In Chains as a great overview of the power of corporate concentration and the challenges that it poses to democracy. So I think it’s good to think about and it’s good to feature a state like Vermont at a time in which there are a lot of other forces arrayed against doing things the right way.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Mine is a little different vein. The Altered Carbon series, both the three books, well, there’s many books, I’ve only read the three of the Takeshi Kovacs series by Richard Morgan. But it’s a series of sci-fi on Netflix now too, and the three books are incredible and mind-blowing, and feature adult content.
So I’ll just say this. Some people have criticized it for bringing a little bit too much Game of Thrones sex, nudity, violence to a sci-fi series, but as I’ve said to a few people, in a future in which there’s very little consequence for our action and people can basically kind of be re-booted, I actually think there’s maybe too little sex and violence based on when I think of the human character.
But I’ve found the books to be incredibly engrossing and very, very good reading for sci-fi. So if anyone’s looking for that sort of thing, I highly recommend it.
|Stacy Mitchell:||What was the title of that series again?|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Altered Carbon is both the first book in the series with that character, and then the title of the Netflix series.|
|Stacy Mitchell:||And the book Democracy In Chains that John recommended is by Nancy MacLean. She’s on a speaking tour right now and I actually just heard her speak a few weeks ago here in Portland Maine and she was terrific. So if you have a chance to catch up with her that way, I also recommend that.
Thank you all for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website, ILSR.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ILSR.org. And while you’re there, you can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media.
And once again, please help us out by rating this podcast and sharing it with your friends. This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez and Nick Stumo-Langer. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Stacy Mitchell. I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.
Like this episode? Please help us reach a wider audience by rating Building Local Power on iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts. And please become a subscriber! If you missed our previous episodes make sure to bookmark our Building Local Power Podcast Homepage.