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GOP questions Democratic “success”

May 17, 2011
NEAL P. GOSWAMI
Staff Writer
BENNINGTON — Top GOP officials pushed back Monday against Democratic claims of a successful legislative session in Montpelier.

Republicans, vastly outnumbered by Democrats in both the House and Senate, and having lost the governor’s seat to Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin after former GOP Gov. James Douglas chose not to seek re-election, said Democrats did little to create jobs or lower property taxes.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the GOP’s top-ranking elected official in Vermont, joined House Minority Leader Don Turner and Assistant Minority Leader Patti Komline at a Statehouse press conference Monday to counter a more than week-long victory lap by Democrats. The first year of the legislative biennium ended May 6.

Shumlin delivered on several exacting promises made during his campaign, including a health care reform bill that lays the groundwork for a publicly financed single-payer style health care system. Shumlin, along with House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, have hailed the bill as major progress.

But Turner said the focus on health care reform came at the expense of job growth, another major focus of the fall campaign.

“The whole thing shifted. It shifted to health care and balancing the budget,” Turner said. “If this was such a successful session as it’s been portrayed to be, then why didn’t we deal with the cost of living, why didn’t we deal with jobs?”

The health care bill establishes a health care insurance exchange called for in federal law. It will eventually create a statewide insurance plan to be overseen by a five-member board. How much the future system will cost and how it will be paid for remain unclear.

There are still too many unknowns, Scott said.

“I’ve been a skeptic of the health care bill that was passed. I thought it should be more comprehensive,” he said. “We’ve passed the bill and I accept that, but we have to take a look at this five-member board and the tremendous power that it will have.”

Komline, of Dorset, said Democrats balanced the state budget — and its $176 million deficit — by using one-time federal money and raising about $25 million in taxes, Komline said. Hospitals and other health care providers will pay more of their revenues to the state, she said.

House Republicans pitched ideas to avoid that, she said, but were largely ignored. The GOP suggested capping emergency room and specialist visits for Medicaid recipients, which could have saved about $17 million, according to Komline.

A one-year freeze on funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which receives about $22 million in state and federal funds, could have saved an additional $10 million, she said.

“It’s not like there’s a lot of developers out there looking to buy up land,” Komline said.

The budget passed by lawmakers this year could see major changes depending on cuts made in Washington. Congress faces its own debate over spending, and deep cuts could require major adjustments to the state budget.

And lawmakers did not take up a report from a special commission that reviewed the state’s tax structure. That will likely happen during the next session.

Republicans plan to oppose any effort to raise broad-based taxes.

“At this time, that is not an option. We have identified enough areas that can be cut,” Turner said.

And Scott, who is a member of Shumlin’s cabinet, sought to hold Shumlin to a phrase he has often repeated. “I do agree with the governor that we shouldn’t increase taxes, that we’re maxed out. We have no more capacity,” Scott said. “I think that he’s been clear on that and I want to be as clear as he is.”

Despite policy difference, Scott said Vermont lawmakers debated issues in a cordial manner. That was the real success of the session, he said.

“I think we can bill it as successful in terms of the level of respect and level of civility,” Scott said. “We can disagree. We can oppose what’s being proposed, but do it in a respectful manner.”

Turner said House Republicans are now planning to tour the state and seeking input from Vermonters on issues for the next session.

They also plan to recruit candidates for the 2012 election to help restore some balance in the Statehouse.

“It’s not healthy to have the House, the Senate and the governor to all be in the same party,” Scott said. “I don’t think it’s healthy at all, so it’s our job at this point to try and encourage people to run.”

Turner said the Democrats’ “absolute control” is not good for the state. “My hope is that we don’t have that same setup going forward after the 2012 election,” he said. “I think it’s actually pretty scary.”

Republican officials will look to recruit younger Vermonters from the business community, Komline said. “We think the business community is very under-represented in the Statehouse,” Komline said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

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