BRATTLEBORO—It’s an advocacy group! It’s a public policy group! It’s the Campaign for Vermont!
The Campaign for Vermont (CFV), a new idea group bankrolled by businessman and founder Bruce Lisman, has hit the pavement and is spreading visions of a robust and vital economy for the brave little state of Vermont.
One of the founding partners of the group is Jeff Lewis, the executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), who asserts that the Legislature rarely weighs new initiatives against effects on jobs or the economy.
According to its mission, the organization believes in achieving prosperity through consensus building and focused policies on government transparency and accountability. Such measures, they believe, would result in a stronger economy, more jobs with better wages, and a greater commitment to social responsibility and environmental stewardship.
According to Lisman, more people than he expected have signed on to the Campaign since it launched a couple of months ago.
“Vermont can once again be a prosperous state where opportunities to succeed are available to everyone,” CFV writes on its website.
Lisman likes to say he’s a realist who had modest expectations for the Campaign. The rate that CFV has gained support and new sign-ons has exceeded his expectations. People are demanding more, too, he said.
The Campaign uses radio, the web, letters to the editor, and speeches before local organizations to spread the word.
According to Lisman, the Campaign is a nonpartisan group of political moderates exploring new versions of old ideas.
When people have better facts and new ideas, they can make better decisions, he said. With this in mind, CFV wants to encourage debate, foster new ideas, or dust off old ones, said Lisman.
One of the issues with Vermont’s current idea climate, especially the climate in Montpelier, is that people interpret ideas through the lens of their respective political parties, he said, adding that the decision-makers first think of their parties before they take action to save the state.
He stresses CFV has no “gurus” to dictate the organization’s direction. Instead, members live and learn together.
The Campaign has focused its discussion on five keystones: economy and job creation, education and property tax reform, affordable and accessible health care, a safe and clean energy portfolio, and a transparent and accountable government.
Lisman said CFV has no intention of acting as a political action group and has no desire to support candidates.
He stresses that the group is an advocate for ideas, but it is not a think tank whose ideas only go into a drawer, he said.
“We’re here for Joe Q. Vermonter,” said Shawn Shouldice, who provides guidance and public relations for CFV.
According to Shouldice, the Campaign views the state’s economy and future through the lens of transparency, prosperity, and a vibrant economy before asking, “How do any ideas on the table get us there?”
Shouldice is also the principal at Capital Connections, a Montpelier-based government and public relations firm, and Vermont state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
One such idea on CFV’s plate is overhauling Vermont’s education system.
According to Lisman, localizing the school system eliminates much of the property tax. The minds behind CFV assert that reducing the number of school districts to 15 and reducing overhead drops the costs for everyone, he said.
The group’s 15 proposed school districts correlate to the number of Vermont’s technical centers. Each of these new districts would cover a larger footprint but could also embrace towns with commonality. Brattleboro and Bellows Falls have more in common and similar needs to one another than either have with an area like Shaftsbury, he said.
Lisman believes CFV’s plan offers more choice for students to attend schools throughout their districts. High schoolers could also choose to attend a technical school rather than a traditional high school, said Lisman.
The recent legislature-commissioned Picus report, compiled by Lawrence O. Picus and Associates, echos other reports on Vermont’s education funding. Lisman charges that the report exists only to prove the current system works.
CFV’s point of view is that students should have equal opportunity to eduction, but that is not the case, he said.
Lisman repeatedly points to the experience of a former school chum from the Old North End of Burlington, an economically depressed area of the city.
His friend came from generations of scraping together, making do, and getting by. His friend’s chance of success started lower than the chances of the classmates whose families had the resources to send them to summer camp or other “stimulus activities.”
The CFV’s education funding idea, developed by CFV founding partner Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, and former Sen. Susan Bartlett, now a special assistant to Gov. Peter Shumlin, would free money by reducing overhead. The idea also suggests increasing class sizes and instead focusing on the quality of teaching.
The system would also localize the tax system so each resident’s vote would have an impact on his or her own hometown.
“Truth is, nothing much happened,” Lisman said.
The Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements have one or two good ideas, but they lack specificity, he said.
Occupy’s biggest weakness lies in it’s refusal to centralized leadership. “There’s too many people to listen to,” Lisman said.
CFV’s ideas, however, stand on their own, and could adjust the state’s strategic plan moving it in a direction beneficial to its citizens, he points out.
CFV is classified as a tax-exempt organization under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service tax code.
A group qualifying for this tax-exempt status may not engage in business activities to raise money for their cause. Such groups can lobby for legislation but not participate in political campaigns.
Donations to such groups are not tax deductible.
According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, 501(c)(4)s are not required to disclose donations. Prior to 2010, organizations with this status had to disclose corporate or union donations to the Federal Election Commission.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that 501(c)4 groups may accept unlimited corporate and union money without disclosing their sources, said SourceWatch.
Diehard optimist and partners
Lisman, who lives in Shelburne, has the stature of a super nova and the energy to match.
He believes Vermont can build a robust economy and workforce while retaining its values of caring and frugality.
A diehard optimist, Lisman was born in the Old North End of Burlington. According to his biography on CFV’s website, after graduating from the University of Vermont he strode into New York’s financial district, eventually taking the post of co-head of global equities at Bear Stearns.
Lisman retired from JP Morgan Chase & Co. as chairman of their Global Equities Division in 2009.
He has served on multiple boards, including the Shelburne Museum, Vermont Symphony Orchestra, National Life, Merchant Bancshares Corp., Central Vermont Public Service, The Hewitt School, Pace University, University of Vermont, HS Broadcasting, and BRUT Inc.
Other members of CFV include founding officers Tom Pelham and Mary Alice McKenzie.
A Berlin resident and Arlington native, Pelham has served as commissioner of housing in the administration of Gov. Richard Snelling, commissioner of finance and management under Gov. Howard Dean in the 1990s, and as Tax Commissioner for Gov. Jim Douglas from 2003 to 2009.
McKenzie, of Burlington, works as executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Burlington. She has served as president and CEO of McKenzie of Vermont, as general counsel for Vermont State Colleges, and as a member of the boards of Central Vermont Public Service, Vermont Electric Power Co., Associated Industries of Vermont, and Vermont Energy Partnership. She is a member of the board of directors of the Northfield Savings Bank.
Other founding partners include Walter Freed of Dorset, former Speaker of the House from 2001 to 2005; Angelo Pizzagalli of Shelburne, co-chair of Pizzagalli Construction, one of the biggest contractors in Vermont; and Dawn Terrill of Colchester, former secretary of transportation in the Douglas administration.
CFV has reached out to members of the Legislature asking for support and for members to sign on to the Campaign.
Some aren’t convinced.
“The Campaign for Vermont is known in the statehouse under some other names,” said Rep. Michael Mrowicki (D-Putney). “The Campaign for the 1 percent, the Campaign for Bear Stearns [since Lisman worked for the investment bank and brokerage firm], or the Campaign for Republicans Who Don’t Want to Admit to the Public that They’re Republicans.”
Jeff Lewis conceded that the Campaign still has some forming to do.
A major task is building a statewide constituency devoted to economic health and quality, he said. Unlike health care, the environment, education, or the campaign to close Vermont Yankee, Lewis said, Vermont’s economy doesn’t have an organized constituency or an advocacy group.
Campaign for Vermont can build that constituency, he said.
Vermont is facing big initiatives, like health-care reform, which will change the societal and economic landscape, he said.
According to Lewis, these initiatives’ potential benefits come packaged in big costs tied with a ribbon of risk.
The state’s economy, save for Chittenden County, has been flat for years, he said, adding that Vermont’s workforce is aging and that Windham County has the lowest average wage statewide.
“We don’t have time to wait for the [county’s] workforce to age more,” said Lewis.
He believes CFV can give the Windham County workforce a voice in Montpelier.
“[Windham County] needs to know that we are a part of Vermont, and Vermont should also be aware that we are part of Vermont,” he said.