An uncharacteristically subdued Governor Shumlin held an agenda-free news conference this morning. I emphasize “agenda-free” because his past practice has been to piggy-back news conferences onto photo opportunities or policy announcements, leaving much less time for general questions.
Today there were a lot of questions and a lot of substance. In no particular order…
— The Vermont Health Connect website will go back online this Saturday, which happens to be the first day of open enrollment. So the relaunch will come on the last possible day. Gee, hope things go right; there’s no margin for error.
Shumlin pronounced himself “optimistic,” saying “I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing.” But given how often he, and we, have been burned in the past, he was reluctant to make any predictions. “I’m always hoping it will work.”
— He dismissed Republican calls to shut down VHC and go with the federal exchange, and he had several good arguments. First of all, it’s far too late to make the change this year, so we’d be limping along with VHC for another year in any case. And there are signs it’s finally getting on track. “We’re turning a corner,” he said. “Why not give it a chance?”
There’s also the fact that the federal exchange’s premium subsidies aren’t as generous as Vermont’s. Switching to the federal system would mean higher premiums for thousands of Vermonters who earn between 100-300% of the poverty line.
And, as he pointed out, the US Supreme Court may well strike down federal subsidies, in which case only states with their own exchanges will be able to offer subsidies.
— Get ready for a slam-bang legislative session. Shumlin is still talking about the next step in health care reform (see below), the legislature is hell-bent on property tax and/or school funding reform, Shumlin is talking about significant changes to energy policy, and perhaps worst of all, the quote atop this post: “We have a structural deficit at this point.” Meaning huge challenges in fashioning a budget. That’s a hell of a lot of big, contentious issues to tackle.
— Speaking of the budget, Shumlin acknowledged that Vermont and many other states “thought the recovery would be more robust,” and its weakness has caused revenue shortfalls. He’s talking about a second round of rescissions in this year’s budget, although he said nothing is final just yet. And he’s talking about major changes in next year’s budget in order to put an end to annual budget crises.
He wants to put the state on a more sustainable path. Which must be making a few Republicans chuckle, since they’ve been preaching this for years. On the other hand, Shumlin has a valid point: the recovery has been weak. If we’d had a normal recovery with decent wage gains, our tax revenue would be stronger and we wouldn’t be facing this dilemma. The big news on this front is that the Governor now believes we’re facing years of sluggishness, and we need to ratchet down the budget to make it sustainable.
When asked whether this might mean tax increases, he didn’t rule them out, but he made it clear that his first choice is to rein in spending.
— On the push for single-payer health care, he repeated his longstanding support for the idea, but acknowledged that in the wake of the election, everything is on the table. He is aiming for a system that combines affordability with universal access to health care. His preference remains single-payer, but it’s looking like we might settle for less than that.
— He made it clear that yes, he won the election, and he has no doubt that he will serve a third term. He pointed to Vermont’s long tradition of electing the top vote-getter when no one wins a majority: ‘The person who gets the most votes, wins.” He cited the 2002 election for Lieutenant Governor, in which he and Progressive Anthony Pollina combined for a liberal majority but Republican Brian Dubie won the most votes; he and Pollina urged lawmakers to elect Dubie, which they did.
— On school funding and organization, he declared “We have a spending problem,” with high per-pupil costs and administrative structures. In some cases, he said, small class sizes can be harmful to achievement rather than helpful. He’s not in favor of mandatory school consolidation, but it’s clear he will push for consolidation by trying to convince local districts that it’s in their best interest.
He did mention the idea of “prioritizing funding to schools that voluntarily consolidate.” That kind of legislative payola may be effective, but it kinda stretches the definition of “voluntary.”
— In a less wide-ranging news conference, his comments on energy policy might have made headlines. They’re likely to get lost in today’s news. He noted the pending sunset of the SPEED program, which has helped spur the renewables industry in Vermont but has also created controversy because it allows the sale of “green” energy credits in other markets. He and the legislature are working on “ideas to replace SPEED.”
He was asked about the prospects for a carbon tax with offsetting cuts in other taxes — a plan likely to be announced tomorrow by a coalition of environmental groups. He was cool to the idea, saying “It’s tough for a small rural state to do it alone,” and pointing particularly to its impact on gas stations near our state borders. He prefers a regional carbon tax instead; but he said he’s had no conversations with other northeastern governors about the idea. Methinks the enviros will have a hard time gaining traction, when you combine Shumlin’s reluctance with an extremely busy legislative session.
— Finally, he was asked about marijuana legalization. He said he wants to wait until the release of a report on the idea in January before proceeding, but noted that “I support legalization. The question is “when.”