MONTPELIER — Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin delivered his farewell address to lawmakers Wednesday afternoon, framing his six-year tenure as a success after recovering from the Great Recession, facing down an opiate addiction epidemic, delivering health care to more Vermonters and greatly expanding renewable energy across the state.
Shumlin, who did not seek re-election, will leave office Thursday afternoon after Republican Gov.-elect Phil Scott is sworn in. He used his nearly 30-minute farewell address to remind lawmakers — and the public — of what he sees as his administration’s good deeds as he prepares to leave office less popular than when he arrived.
Shumlin began his remarks by congratulating Scott, who defeated Shumlin’s preferred candidate, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sue Minter, in last November’s general election.
“I’ve known Phil for a long, long time. We served together in the senate for many years. He’s been my lieutenant governor and our lieutenant governor for the last six years. He was a member of my cabinet,” Shumlin said. “I know that Phil cares deeply about this great state. He’s a hard worker and I know that he will serve the state honorably has our 82nd governor. Congratulations, Phil.”
The governor reflected on his beginning in state government as a House member from Putney 30 years ago. He said he entered “with incredible energy, incredible hope and incredible enthusiasm for Vermont’s future.”
“As I prepare to depart tomorrow, I leave with that same optimism, humbled and forever grateful for the faith that Vermonters have put in me,” he said.
As a young boy with dyslexia, Shumlin said his future was unknown. But here in Vermont he thrived. “In another state I might have faced a very bleak and different future. In Vermont, I became governor,” he said.
The state suffered “a series of economic body blows” just before he took office, Shumlin said. The state had lost 10,000 jobs and the state budget faced a $178 million shortfall. Meanwhile, “infrastructure was crumbling with one quarter of the state’s roads in very poor condition,” he said, more than 30,000 Vermonters had no broadband service and “our lowest paid workers had little hope of a real raise.” And, “bubbling just below the surface was a massive opiate crisis.”
“Six years later, this state is a vastly different place thanks to our work together. Let’s remember when I ran for governor I said that my top priority would be to grow jobs and economic opportunity,” he said. “We’ve done that.”
“We added almost 16,000 jobs in the last six years. Our unemployment rate has fallen every year since I have had the privilege of being governor. And personal per capita incomes have grown faster than the national average for the last five years – something that has never happened in our history,” Shumlin added.
He touted his record on clean energy, boasting of expanding renewable energy during his tenure.
“Today Vermont Yankee is shuttered, we have 12 times the number of solar panels, 25 times the wind power, and our utilities are transforming into cutting edge efficiency companies,” the governor said.
Shumlin devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to opiate addiction “epidemic” gripping Vermont and other states. Since then, Shumlin has blamed drug companies for pushing ever-stronger pain killers and passed strict prescription limits on opiates. He also framed a national conversation on treating addiction as a disease, rather than a criminal justice matter.
“The crisis of opiate and heroin addiction did not begin in Vermont, but Vermont began the national conversation about how to address it,” he said in his farewell address.
A focus on criminal justice reform also produced tangible results, according to Shumlin. He said incarceration rates “are at the lowest level since the early 2000s,” and the state has nearly 600 fewer inmates now than it did in 2010.
“That’s tens of millions of dollars each year that Vermonters are not wasting on prison cells,” Shumlin said.
He also reminded lawmakers that his administration pushed for and enacted universal pre-K education, and by embracing the federal Affordable Care Act, helped 25,000 Vermonters obtain health insurance. The state’s online health care marketplace, Vermont Health Connect, is also now working effectively, albeit several years after it launched in October 2013.
Shumlin said the state “has not shied away from continuing that tradition of being among the first to do the right thing,” as he thanked lawmakers for passing the end-of-life choices legislation that he signed into law.
Shumlin revealed for the first time publicly in his farewell address that his own father, George Shumlin, who died in April 2014 at the age of 88, utilized the law that allows terminally ill patients to request medication to end their own lives.
“I never thought my dad would be able to die with dignity in his home state,” Shumlin said in his remarks Wednesday.
Shumlin, as he closed his remarks, urged lawmakers to continue pushing back against the pharmaceutical industry.
“Big Pharma doesn’t just profit from the sale of the painkillers, they profit from the pills to reduce constipation caused by the painkillers; they profit from the medications you need after you sign up for the disease; and they profit from the rescue kits that we pay so much money for,” Shumlin said.
He said he has “felt like a lone voice in the forest calling out Big Pharma for these practices that are creating the opiate addiction crisis in America” for the past year. Vermont must continue to fight drug companies “now more than ever,” he said.
“Keep it up. Keep it up, Vermont,” Shumlin pleaded.
And, he called on lawmakers to continue the push to clean Lake Champlain and address climate change.
“We’ve got to keep our green energy revolution moving forward. Please do it,” he said.
Shumlin foreshadowed a dark age in American with the pending administration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump. He cautioned that “America needs us more than ever” because of the divisive and contemptuous president elect.”
“Vermont must always stand up against hatred, against bigotry, against intolerance, that will sadly be part of our future,” Shumlin said.
After leaving office, Shumlin said he plans to do his part as a private citizen.
“Tomorrow, I will no longer be your governor. But I will be a Vermonter demanding that my government stand firm for the values that make this state what it is and has always been. Given what I know to be true about this state that I love, I am confident I will not be the only one. That’s why I am leaving this chamber today with the same enthusiasm, hope, and optimism I had 30 years ago when I first arrived,” he said.