MONTPELIER, Vt.—Vowing to push for single-payer health care and statewide broadband Internet access without raising taxes, Democrat Peter Shumlin was sworn in as Vermont's 81st governor Thursday just hours after lawmakers elected him to the post.
"As we tackle the difficult challenge of balancing our budget, we must not and cannot succumb to the idea that Vermonters have the capacity to pay higher taxes right now," Shumlin said. "In order to grow jobs and be more competitive with neighboring states, we must resist the temptation to raise broad-based taxes."
The Legislature ultimately had to decide the outcome of the Nov. 2 governor's race because Shumlin did not receive enough votes to win it outright.
Shumlin touched on several themes familiar from his campaign, including the story of how as a boy with dyslexia in elementary school, he had overcome difficulty in learning how to read with the help of a dedicated teacher, Claire Ogelsby.
"What I remember best about Claire was no matter how difficult the challenge, no matter how innovative she had to be or how hard she had to work, she never gave up on me and therefore neither did I," he said.
"I share that part of my life today because we are living in difficult times and we need to be creative to overcome our challenges," Shumlin said.
He noted that despite years of "necessary but painful spending cuts," the state faces a $150 million shortfall out of a general fund budget of $1.2 billion in the next fiscal year.
Shumlin said he had five main goals: expanding broadband Internet and cellular phone service; containing health care costs and moving to a Medicare-style single-payer insurance system; providing better worker training on the theory that unemployment will go down if workers are better trained for jobs that are available; more "tax fairness" and easier credit for small businesses and diversification in agriculture.
Reviews of the speech were generally positive. Daniel Barlow, government relations manager with the group Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, said his group was pleased at the promises Shumlin was making on health care, green energy, health care and expanding high-speed Internet access.
Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, said Shumlin "outlined a very ambitious agenda with a number of initiatives that will certainly come with some expense. We all heard a pledge not to increase taxes. And overshadowing all of that is a $150 million budget gap to close before we can even think about embarking on this new voyage."
Vermont's famously fractious electorate failed to give either Shumlin or his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the more than 50 percent in the November election required for either to claim victory under the state Constitution, leaving lawmakers to decide the outcome voting by secret paper ballot Thursday morning.
The candidates mainly responsible for denying either a majority were the minor-party third- and fourth-place finishers, whose main platform planks were secession from the United States and marijuana legalization, respectively.
The Legislature almost never has elected anyone other than the plurality winner. Dubie conceded to Shumlin the day after the election. Shumlin set up a transition team and office and has been busy making appointments to a new administration and crafting a budget to present to lawmakers later this month.
The transition office's letterhead and press releases referred to him throughout as governor-elect, though technically, Shumlin held that title for only about three hours Thursday, between the Legislature's vote and the moment when he raised his right hand and took the oath of office as governor.
Shumlin, a 54-year-old businessman from Putney who previously served as president pro tem of the state Senate, has vowed to be a fiscal conservative as governor, and his picks to fill key budget posts have indicated as much. Otherwise, he's widely seen as a liberal's liberal, leading Vermont to pass a gay marriage law and in the fight to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant when its license expires in 2012.