By ELAINE EZERINS
Messenger staff writer
Matt Dunne believes the best years of Vermont’s economy are yet to come. But to get there, the Democratic candidate for governor and former state legislator says it will take rethinking old approaches and investing in infrastructure.
A multi-generational Vermonter, Dunne lives with his wife and three children in the same Hartland farmhouse where he grew up. Although he spent the last eight years as a Google executive with offices based in White River Junction, Dunne began his career in the House at the ripe old age of 22.
After seven years, Dunne served as the director of AmeriCorps VISTA before being elected to the Senate in 2002. In 2006, he lost the race for lieutenant governor, followed by an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010.
Dunne believes in developing the economy with Vermont values. He was a co-sponsor of the land recycling act, which allows abandoned industrial sites to be redeveloped.
“At the time, people were saying, ‘It seems like a strange thing for you to focus on. It’s not that sexy,’” Dunne said. “But … we were in an economic downturn. There was huge pressure to develop farm and forestland, and yet there were millions of square feet of abandoned industrial sites.”
His bill helped a developer convert an old factory in Bennington into a dam. Dunne said a distillery could be built there someday.
Dunne said developers use the program to redevelop such locations into “vibrant centers.”
“I don’t think it’s the most radical thing in the world, but its good Vermont common sense,” he said, “and it’s a way to make sure we’re making the most of the land that we have and ensure we’re not destroying what makes Vermont incredibly special.”
Dunne also had a hand in the state’s “designated downtown” program, which directs state funds to revitalize village centers, create financial incentives and remove barriers for developers.
His economic plan is focused on developing broadband infrastructure, innovation centers and a healthy environment for telecommuting.
At Google, Dunne managed the rollout of high-speed internet in rural and urban communities across the U.S.
With Vermont nestled between Montreal, Boston and New York City, Dunne said the state is strategically located to capitalize on telecommuting, as long as broadband is up and running.
“It’s going to take that infrastructure,” he said. “It’s going to take that continued redevelopment of in downtowns.”
Dunne proposed investing in mixed-use innovation centers funded through public and private partnerships.
He also wants to help people start small businesses by micro-lending funds with corresponding support programs. At AmeriCorps VISTA, Dunne found this strategy “very effective at helping low-income people start and sustain local business.”
Dunne has proposed a Vermont Service Scholarship Program to allow anyone who completes two years of national service in AmeriCorps or the military to graduate from any Vermont state college or the University of Vermont debt-free.
He also thinks Vermont is perceived as a place to visit rather than to live. While on the Senate Economic Development Committee, he urged lawmakers to refocus on innovation instead of Vermont’s rural character to attract young workers.
Dunne thinks the failed execution of Vermont Health Connect is a “huge setback” that challenges people’s trust in the state.
Citing data from OneCare Vermont, Dunne noted health care costs in Vermont rise $650,000 a day.
“There is nothing sustainable about that,” he said.
Since leaving Google, Dunne pays $1,900 a month for coverage: “That used to be two mortgages,” he said.
Dunne said serving on the Dartmouth Hitchcock Center board for three years reinforced his belief that the current health care system isn’t sustainable. Dunne thinks hospitals should receive incentives for moving toward health outcomes instead of fee-based services.
He detailed a three-pronged approach to achieve this, starting with fixing the Vermont Health Connect website and ending at universal primary care.
Dunne also shared his views on education costs, another driver in state budget increases.
As for Act 46, the state’s landmark education reform law that asks schools to merge into more cost-effective structures, Dunne said he believes “there is a pathway to better education quality and value without necessarily jumping to consolidation.”
“I want to be clear that there are places where consolidation makes sense, and there are places where it doesn’t,” he said.
Dunne likes that Act 46 created incentives and resources for districts that want to move toward consolidation, but he’s less fond of the state’s 900-student minimum for an ideal K-12 structure.
Dunne thinks the merger requirement is arbitrary and lacks research and scientific support. It also “doesn’t reflect the different mosaic of schools around the state,” he said.
He thinks the state should take the same approach to school mergers as it did with Act 77 and personalized learning plans and treat each school uniquely. He does support consolidating payroll and student records systems for all school districts at the state level, he said.
Dunne said his blend of private and public sector experience, work in both the House and the Senate and his work in higher education makes him stand out in the Democratic primary – especially because he thinks there are issues the state must address in each of those categories.
“It’s going to take moving us in a new and different direction,” Dunne said. “Bernie Sanders has changed politics in our country, but he’s also changed politics in Vermont by his running.”
Dunne said Sanders’ campaign made people realize “they weren’t alone in believing that we can do right by all of our citizens,” including affordable housing, access to quality health care and a livable wage.
“What I’m excited about is that in this moment in time, we have the chance to bring that same message and movement and agenda back here to Vermont,” he said.