Frugal Crusader: Combining Fiscal Prudence with Social Progress
There are people in Vermont — most of them political liberals — who say that Governor Howard Dean behaves like a Republican. Then there are conservatives who find his views on health and social issues disturbingly to the left of center. The truth is, much like the state he has governed for five two-year terms, he has made his political mark by defying easy labeling.
Dean set this tone the moment he took office. Thrust into the governorship in 1991 by the unexpected death of the incumbent, Richard Snelling, Dean took over a state in serious fiscal straits. Members of his own Democratic Party were pushing hard to extend a temporary income-tax increase the legislature had enacted; surprising nearly everyone, Dean refused, letting the tax increase lapse and insisting instead that the state would have to deal with its difficulties through budget cuts.
In the years since, Dean has made fiscal prudence one of the bedrock values of his tenure. “Every time there’s been a deficit or what would seem like some other compelling reason to raise taxes,” says Chris Barbieri, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, “he’s resisted the temptation. In fact, he’s pretty consistently brought in budgets that were either at the cost-of-living increase rate or a little more, and at times with shortfalls or tight budgets he has erred on the side of cutting the budget.” This has opened Dean up to no small amount of sniping from his state’s more traditional Democrats, but Dean — who has never been one to shy from saying what he thinks — has little patience for their arguments. “Some of the best social legislation has been signed into law because the frugality of the early 1990s required us to focus on prevention and forward-thinking policy,” he insisted last year.
Dean is a physician, so it’s no surprise that health care is the area in which he has been most willing to spend now in order to save later. Under Snelling’s predecessor, Madeline Kunin, Vermont had established a health insurance program for children, “Dr. Dynasaur,” aimed at covering kids up to the age of six. The program expanded after Dean took over, coming to take in children up to the age of 18 in families with incomes as much as three times the poverty level; together with a health-access plan that covers adults not eligible for Medicaid, and Success by Six, an extensive early child care and parental education program using home visits by caseworkers, Vermont over the past decade has provided a level of health coverage that puts it ahead of all other states. “People have obsessions with things,” says John McLaughry, who ran against Dean for governor in 1992 and now runs a free-market think tank. “Howard has one about the rate of uninsured Vermonters.”
What is striking about the state’s network of health programs is that they were not part of some grand rewrite of health policy in Vermont but essentially a fallback after Dean realized in 1994 that his plans for a sweeping health initiative were unlikely to pass the legislature. In fact, Dean has tended to evade the legislative fray. He does not take the delight in politics that both Snelling and Kunin did. “If they had a priority, they had their people swarming the statehouse; Governor Dean does not,” says Chris Barbieri. Oddly enough, that has often worked in his favor. After the state Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that gay couples were entitled to the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples, Dean helped put the compromise notion of “civil unions” on the table, but then stepped back and let the legislature find its own way on the matter. He signed the bill without public fanfare, a move that helped cool a divisive public debate.
”I haven’t had great relationships with the legislature over the years,” he once said. “I think being a doctor has made that more difficult, because doctors do have a tendency toward deciding what they think ought to be done and insisting that that’s the right thing to do. We’re not very process-oriented people.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images