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Vermont Dems claim legislative success

May 14, 2011
Staff Writer
BENNINGTON — Democrats are hailing the recently adjourned legislative session as a major success, having passed several high-profile bills and closed a $176 million budget gap.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who was sworn into office in January, delivered on several exacting promises he made during his campaign. Shumlin and the Democratic-led Legislature capitalized on their one-party rule to usher through a health care reform bill that lays the groundwork for a publicly financed single-payer style health care system.

“In my wildest dreams I didn’t think that (lawmakers) would make the progress that they made to get us on a road to a system that turns health care into a right and not a privilege, where we have a system where health care follows the individual … and most importantly where we use our health care dollars to make Vermonters healthier instead of waste inefficiency in a payment system that’s going to drown us in rising costs,” Shumlin said in a recent interview.

Others are skeptical, however, and had hoped to learn more details before moving forward.

“We have a reform effort going forward and we have no idea what it is, how much it costs and who will pay for it,” said Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington. The legislation passed this year, which creates the health care insurance marketplace exchange called for in federal law, is more unpredictable than past reform efforts in the state, Morrissey said.

Other bills delivering on campaign promises look to curb Corrections spending by reducing recidivism among inmates, and a telecommunications bill to ease permitting to allow cell towers and broadband infrastructure to build out more rapidly.

“Of the legislatures I’ve observed … I have never seen the Legislature tackle more tough issues in a shorter period of time. We worked together in a bipartisan spirit to get things done. And tough things,” Shumlin said. “When you look at what’s happening in the rest of the country, the partisan gridlock in Washington, states wrangling over party politics, Democrats, Republicans, independents, Progressives, came together and got more accomplished than I ever thought would get done when I gave my inaugural in January.”

Lawmakers’ most significant task was passing a state budget while closing a sizable projected deficit. Shumlin credited lawmakers for improving the budget he proposed, and passing a balanced plan that didn’t raise broad-based taxes.

“We had a $176 million shortfall. The federal money was gone, so we didn’t have the luxury we’ve had over the last three budget shortfalls of being able to rely on the federal government to solve it. The only way to solve it was by making really tough choices,” he said. “We balanced the need to take care of the most vulnerable Vermonters with the need to match our appetite for spending with our ability to pay. We did it without raising broad-based taxes and they improved the budget that we did in January.”

No tax hike on the rich

Liberal lawmakers made an effort to raise taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters, hoping to ease cuts to the state’s safety net. Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell rebuffed those efforts, however, arguing that those residents my flee to states that have lower tax rates.

“I’m very happy with how the session wound up. We knew that we were going to have difficult fiscal challenges facing us,” Smith said. “I’m pleased with the way that we were able to address the budget gap.”

A miscellaneous tax bill that helps fund the budget was passed that raises about $24 million in new revenue. A large chunk of that will come from increased assessments on hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies. The state’s cigarette tax was also increased by nearly 40 cents.

Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, the House assistant minority leader, said House Republicans do not view the session as such a success. Lawmakers cut only $38 million from the budget. The rest, she said, “was plugged with one-time money and tax increases.”

Komline said Republicans, who account for less than one-third of the House, presented a “viable budget without the tax increases,” but were spurned by Democrats.

“It wasn’t just like we were saying no to this. We offered alternatives,” she said.

Morrissey said the Legislature again put off difficult choices. She said projections from the nonpartisan Joint Fiscal Office show a deficit already for next year.

“We really will be starting this fiscal year with a continued $80 million deficit,” she said. “It appears with projections that we have balanced it but we really keep patching.”

The state’s public records law was strengthened by placing more of a burden on state and municipal governments for improperly denying access to records. A judge must now award legal fees to a person that wins a legal challenge in court.

“I insisted that government has nothing to hide, that democracy is better served when we have open government,” Shumlin said. “The fact that we now are a state when if someone is told they can’t have access to public records when they should have, the person who tells them that, whether it’s state or municipal government, is responsible for their legal bill.”

Smith said other bills headed to Shumlin’s desk to be signed into law will have a big impact on Vermonters, including a DUI bill that stiffens penalties for people with multiple convictions. “It was important for us to strengthen the law, particularly as it relates to repeat offenders,” Smith said.

Komline said the DUI bill was one of a few areas where there was broad support among Democrats and Republicans.

A law that forces propane dealers to drop minimum use fees and allow customers to use their own tanks, so long as they meet standards, will save Vermonters money, Smith said.

“I think that will make a big difference, particularly for people who are at the lower end of the income scale,” he said.

And targets set forth in the capital bill to find a 5 percent energy savings in state buildings will save on energy costs, Smith said.

Leftover bills

Lawmakers fell short on some goals, however. A report on the state’s tax structure, and recommended changes, did not advance this year. Smith said that will be addressed in the second half of the legislation biennium.

“I had hoped that we would make further progress on the bill addressing the tax structure,” he said. “It was clear that we need to build more consensus around those bills. My hope is that we’ll be able to take the next step next year.”

Republicans, though limited by their small numbers, will push back, Komline said. “The thing I see next year is an income tax increase,” she said. “I can see where they’re going to do that stuff.”

Physician-assisted suicide also did not advance. Smith said the legislation appears to have hurdles in the Senate.

“It’s clear to me that that’s a bill that has support in the House, but it’s one of those issues where I believe it’s something that we should take up if it’s clear that is can pass through to the governor’s desk,” he said. “I just don’t think it has enough votes in the Senate.”

Komline said Republicans have their own disappointments. Lawmakers failed to address property tax and permit reform. Nor were there any advancements in education.

“There’s nothing cutting edge. There’s so much we could be doing with education,” Komline said. “We could be doing so much with virtual education, online things.”

Meanwhile, disparate views on the level of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans during the session exist. Komline said Republicans were largely excluded from the legislation process.

“I’ve noticed that as our numbers have gone down our voices have been lost,” she said. “The minority voice isn’t really as considered as it used to be.”

But Smith said lawmakers on both sides displaced “a real willingness to roll up their sleeves and put aside partisan differences.”

“By and large, I think that happens day in and day out in the House,” he said.

One thing everyone seems happy about is that the session has ended a week before expected.

“I was appreciative of how the session ended. I think it was timely. I was happy it was a week before it was projected,” Morrissey said. “I think it showed that we got to the point that we worked on what we could, what we couldn’t will be there for another year.”

“I am pleased with the amount of work that we got done this year. I thought that it was a very productive session. I was very happy that we were able to bring it in a week early saving money for Vermonters,” Smith said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at

Other pieces of legislation passed this year in the shadow of health care reform and the state budget. These include:

  •  A bill requiring that private wells used as a potable water supply must be tested for drinking water contaminants when the well is initially drilled and as a condition for property sales. The agency of Natural Resources must also develop a well testing kit that is available to the public.
  • A bill that will require health insurance companies to provide coverage for midwifery services and home births.
  • A jobs bill aimed at freeing up capital and credit for businesses, and expanding the EB-5 program that provides visas to foreigners for investments in job creation.
  • A medical marijuana dispensary bill that will allow for up to four nonprofit dispensaries in Vermont to provide medical marijuana to registered patients who have a debilitating medical condition. The dispensaries will be licensed and regulated by the Department of Public Safety. Federal law still prohibits them, however. Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, said the law was rushed. “We’ve put the law enforcement in a peculiar position and situation in passing this,” she said.
  • Expansion of an existing net metering program allowing renewable energy projects to feed electricity to the grid.

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