Donovan: public investments level playing field
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan spoke to the Brattleboro Rotary Club on April 18.

Donovan: public investments level playing field

In visit to Brattleboro, Vermont attorney general discusses Vermont’s identity crisis in the global digital economy

BRATTLEBORO — Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan loves his home state.

But, he said, it's struggling with an identity crisis.

Is the Green Mountain State the agrarian state of the 19th and 20th centuries, with strong communities and values? Or is Vermont part of the global digital economy and, if so, what values do Vermonters need to sacrifice to participate?

Donovan, a Democrat, asked that question - and others - during his visit to the weekly noontime gathering of the Brattleboro Rotary Club, held at American Legion Post 5 on April 18.

In Donovan's opinion, it's not an either/or solution. He believes that the state must make more public investments, for example, in broadband.

It's fine to debate affordability, he continued, “but we also have to make public investments in our infrastructure: roads, bridges, schools.”

People want to come to vibrant communities, he said - communities with strong downtowns and whose residents show up and care for one another.

“And we have to create a place in this state where business is not a bad thing,” he continued.

Don't wait for Montpelier to create jobs, Donovan told the audience - that's not an area where the Legislature excels.

What government can do, however, is create an environment “that is accessible, transparent, and [helps] get people the answers they need to be successful and then gets out of their way,” he said.

Donovan said that he viewed investment in public services, infrastructure, and institutions the same way: as investments that can “level the playing field” and “give people the opportunity to get ahead.”

“We're not job creators in Montpelier, but we can set the environment, we can set the tone, and then we've got to trust Vermonters - we've got to believe in Vermonters,” he said.

The state also needs to move beyond the either/or debate of growing or not growing, whether that growth is business, population, or the economy.

Donovan took a poke at Republican Governor Phil Scott's incentive of providing people with remote work environments $5,000 to help them move to the state.

“I'm not moving for five grand,” he said. “Let's invest and believe in this state.”

Public investments are part of public safety

Donovan opened his presentation by congratulating the gathered Rotarians on the strength and vibrancy of downtown Brattleboro.

But economic issues aren't part of his portfolio as attorney general. Before delving into that topic, Donovan addressed what had become the hottest issue in town - the ongoing drug crisis.

On April 16 in Brattleboro, U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina E. Nolan stood with a host of local, state, and federal law-enforcement officials to talk about drug-related arrests that captured 16 suspects in Brattleboro and Putney over three days [“U.S. atty. vows 'relentless' response to drug crime,” News, April 16].

During the sweep, law enforcement seized 100 bags of heroin and 70 grams of “cocaine base,” the term for the drug in its non-powdered form, such as crack.

“We are coming after those who prey on the lives of Vermonters by peddling poison and profiting from addiction,” Nolan said on April 16. “We will be relentless. I promise you that we will be relentless.”

“I think that's great,” Donovan told the Rotarians, “and I think when we talk about the opioid crisis in the state that we should be talking about enforcement, we should be talking about treatment, and we should be talking about prevention.”

Donovan has long focused on diverting people struggling with addiction disorders or mental illness from the court system into treatment programs.

While serving as state's attorney for Chittenden County, Donovan launched the Rapid Intervention Community Court, a program that offered people arrested for drug-related crimes the choice between treatment or prosecution.

“I'm a big believer in treatment,” he continued. “I'm also a believer in prevention and not letting this next generation ever get started on this stuff.”

Prevention and treatment, however, cost money, Donovan said, and the state needs to honestly assess how much it will take to end the crisis.

“I think what's missing in this debate [...] is corporate accountability for the folks that started this crisis,” Donovan continued. “And that's why my office sued Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, who in my opinion [started] this crisis.”

Donovan's office has also sued McKesson Corporation and Cardinal Health, two firms that distribute the prescription drugs.

According to Donovan, in March 2012, someone asked him to name the top issue facing Vermont. Donovan said he answered, “Prescription drugs.”

By January 2014, former Governor Peter Shumlin focused his entire State of the State address on Vermont's heroin epidemic. The speech made headlines across the country.

In Donovan's opinion, the conversation quickly shifted from prescription-drug abuse to heroin abuse. While heroin is still an issue in Vermont, Donovan stressed that “corporate accountability is a big part of this equation, and I look to when [the corporate officials of the respective companies] come to a Vermont courtroom up in Chittenden County to answer some questions.”

Nationally, the lawsuits confronting the opioid crisis are similar to the tobacco settlements, which used the courts to deal with the public health crisis of smoking, Donovan said. A lot of the money that came from those settlements in the late 1990s went toward prevention, he said.

Regarding opiates, Donovan explained, the lawsuits represent multiple strategies designed to fight the war on multiple fronts.

For example, he said, three tiers of offenders can potentially face accountability: manufacturers, distributors, and, to a smaller extent, pharmacies.

The lawsuits also contain “a multi-district litigation case where it's mostly cities and towns [and] county hospitals that have been consolidated in a court in Ohio,” he continued. “And then you have a smattering of states like Vermont who have sued individually.”

As the cases wend through the legal system, no one can predict how many court rulings might become one “global settlement,” said Donovan.

“I don't know,” he said. “We're certainly working towards that.”

Oklahoma recently sued and settled with Perdue Pharma a few weeks ago, Donovan said.

Donovan said he can't predict whether Vermont's case will go to trial but said that his office has prepared for that possibility.

He is firm on one specific point.

Money from any potential recovery has “got to go into the communities,” he said. “It's got to go into the schools, it's got to go into the best types of prevention programs to address this issue, as well as treatment.”

Confronting addiction or mental-health issues - another important topic for Donovan - requires more from law enforcement than simply planning to “arrest our way out of this.”

Rather, he said, Vermont must “really look at it through the lens of public-health strategies,” he said. “Because, on one hand, we can't call an addiction a disease and then not treat it.”

People struggling within these circumstances deserve opportunity to access treatment and get support, Donovan said.

“The folks who are selling [drugs] for greed and profit [...] that's why we have jails,” he continued. “One of the struggles of the criminal-justice system is that for far too long we've treated everybody the same - a one-size-fits-all approach - [and it] hasn't worked. It's got to be customized based on need and based on risk.”

Donovan's data on how the state deals with crime points to needing to do a better job, he said.

Vermont spends more money on corrections than on higher education, for example. The rate of reoffending - or recidivism --in the state is more than 50 percent, he continued.

“Who would stay in business if you failed five out of 10 times?” He said. “At the cost of $79,000 a year to incarcerate a woman, $60,000 to incarcerate a man for a year, this is big money.”

Donovan explained that the bottom-line disparity between male and female inmates comes from costs from treating mental illnesses. When addressing how to help incarcerated women, the conversation must also address the trauma and violence that many of the woman have experienced but for which they have never sought treatment, he said.

“This is our challenge in this state: When we talk about infrastructure and we talk about public dollars, it has got to be public investment in public-health strategies,” he said.

In Donovan's opinion, Vermont must ensure that people have access to needed services, such as health care, counseling, and education.

“And when we talk about it from the perch of law enforcement, whose job is public safety, I expand that definition of public safety beyond jail cells and arrests to counselors, to health care, to schools, to a community where people are taking care of each other,” he said. “That is the strength of our state.”

A sense of an identity crisis

“I also feel we're at an interesting spot in our history,” Donovan said. “I think there's a palpable sense that we've got a bit of an identity crisis. We're not really sure who we are in the 21st century.”

The solution, he believes, will be something that combines Vermont's strengths with a vision for the future.

Getting to this future will require investing in things like broadband, education, health care, and people, he said.

“It's not an either/or of saying, 'People are leaving, let's keep our people.' Let's attract more people, and let's grow, based on our values and who we are as a community,” Donovan said.

“Make sure people have an opportunity to get ahead,” he said. “Make sure they have basic protections from government, make sure their roads and bridges are in good shape, make sure they have access to clean drinking water, make sure that if they need to see a doctor they can get in, make sure if they need to get educated that we have good public schools with good teachers.

“Make sure that if they want to go to college they have access to affordable higher education. That's how we're going to keep young people in this state. And let's create an environment and an ecosystem that [make] people want to flock here and want to stay here.”

Donovan related his experience traveling to Ireland approximately 20 years ago. The Good Friday Accords had recently been signed, and decades of civil unrest had finally ended.

He said he had a great time visiting pubs, singing songs, and traveling around what appeared to him like a mostly rural, economically depressed country that saw a mass exodus of people leave in search of opportunity.

Last year, Donovan revisited Ireland with other attorneys general looking at an aspect of how the European Union addresses data privacy. He recalled that Dublin's economy “was booming” with new buildings, lots of jobs and, most importantly, the return of many of the Irish people who had left years earlier for more promising opportunity in Europe and the United States.

“The old dark pubs with the old sad songs were outdated,” he said.

When he asked people why one would invest in Ireland, Donovan said he heard about the country's tax code's benefits to companies and a system where government, business, and education are aligned and looking ahead to trends on the horizon.

Donovan noted that the education system didn't go either/or. The colleges still teach James Joyce, he said. They also teach computer science and coding.

“There's a lesson there about how we can come together in this state, how we can invest in our public institutions as an economic development plan,” he said.

“We can believe something great can be created here if we create the environment and if we invest in the infrastructure. We have the people, we have the values, and we have the traditions. Now, we need to have the vision in getting things done.”

When asked about how to address these investments when the current governor is focused on affordability, Donovan said that there are no easy answers.

Yet, he added, if debate starts and stops with “Is it a tax cut or a tax increase?” then economic momentum will stall. Instead, he said, the conversation needs to center on defining the state's priorities, vision, and methods for an investment to benefit Vermonters, he said.

A member of the audience asked Donovan if he was going to announce a run for governor anytime soon.

In response, Donovan joked that he would not say anything this day, with members of the press in the room.

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