Daily Archives: December 17, 2014

Shumlin waves the white flag

The governor’s number-one public policy goal is no more.

At a news conference today, Governor Shumlin pulled single payer health care off the table, saying the numbers simply don’t add up. Instead, he promised a continued effort to improve access to, and lower the cost of, health care in Vermont.

“This is the greatest disappointment of my political life,” he said, and that nails it. Single payer was one of the foundations of his initial run for governor in 2010. His promise to push for single payer set him apart in a crowded Democratic field and helped overcome doubts about his liberal bona fides.  That promise kept the Progressive Party on the sidelines in 2012 and 2014.

And now, it’s not gonna happen.

Oh, he promised a continued fight for a fairer and more accessible system, starting with the 2015 legislative session. But single payer is out until further notice. When asked, “If not in 2017, when?” he only answered in generalities.

As for the timing of the announcement, only six weeks after the election, Shumlin claimed that his team had just finished working the numbers last Friday and confirmed the bad news on Monday.

The numbers were unacceptably bad. Morgan True of VTDigger had reported that the financing mechanism would be based on an 8% payroll tax and a consumer premium imposed on a sliding scale. But the way the numbers shook out, the actual payroll tax would have to be more like 11.5%, and the premiums would have to be higher than expected. The result could punish the economy and leave many Vermonters with higher health care costs.

He cited several factors that moved single payer out of reach. Federal subsidies were not going to be as generous as hoped. The sluggish economic recovery meant fewer dollars coming into the treasury. That had led to state cuts in Medicaid payments that reduced federal support.

Also, the administration had decided a three-year phase-in for small businesses that don’t currently provide insurance was necessary to cushion the shock of a payroll tax. That phase-in meant substantially lower payroll tax revenue for the first three years.

Shumlin was clearly sensitive to the concerns of the business community. That, and his woodshedding in the November election. He saw single payer as a huge gamble that he was unlikely to win, and now is not the time to stick his neck out.

He also acknowledged that the troubled rollout of Vermont Health Connect cost him credibility on building a new health care system. “We must show we can deliver,” he said. “Vermonters have reason to question us, given the troubles with Vermont Health Connect.”

He emphasized all the hard work that’s been done to create Vermont Health Connect, bend down the cost curve, and lay the groundwork for a better system. And he promised a continued, all-out effort to improve the system. But single payer was his signature deal, and now he’s had to forego it.

Even if the delay is relatively brief — say, two years — single payer is almost certainly unattainable during his tenure in office.  The failure of single payer will be a big part of his legacy, and will significantly hamstring his ability to win back liberal and Progressive voters who’ve been skeptical of him.

Fair or not, today’s announcement confirms that skepticism. Let’s accept that the numbers are honest and the timing was just the way things worked out. Even so, the optics are bad.

There are many liberals who never believed Shumlin was serious about single payer. They will see their cynicism as confirmed.

This retreat will also lend great comfort to the foes of health care reform. A determined Democratic governor, with all the resources he could want, spent three years researching single payer, only to conclude that it wouldn’t work. The revised cost estimate for single payer — $2.6 billion a year — is almost exactly what Wendy Wilton, then-Republican candidate for Treasurer, estimated two years ago.

And the abandonment of single payer strips the governor of his signature issue. Aside from Tropical Storm Irene, his administration has been marked by incremental gains on a number of issues and blocking tax hikes. There haven’t been any high-profile accomplishments — which is why one of Shumlin’s re-election ads focused on GMO labeling, an issue he didn’t support until the last minute. And why a recurring theme in other ads was Irene recovery, something that happened in his first term.

Now we can now look forward to more incremental gains and belt-tightening. His downsized proposals for the 2015 legislature on health care were purely incremental in nature. None will generate headlines or fuel a grassroots movement.

The governor’s gonna have to pull a rabbit out of a hat somewhere to restart his political career. And his biggest hat is now empty.

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How deep is the Milne/VTGOP split?

Ever since the election, there’s been a clear oddity about the public relationship between gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne and top Republicans. Which is basically this: They’re never, ever seen in public together. Not even when said Republicans were advocating for Milne’s election by the legislature.

Both sides denied any rift, sometimes with a cutting subtext. Like this, from Milne:

I think I helped the Republicans statewide about as much as they helped me. I’m not indebted to them, they’re not indebted to me. …I don’t owe the Republican Party anything in the state of Vermont. I clearly don’t owe the national Republican Party anything.

Yeah, that’s real warm and friendly-like.

But now, here’s a choice bit of evidence for my theory, courtesy of VTDigger’s Laura Krantz.

Bartley in 2014 served as a field director for the Republican party. The Colchester resident worked part-time out of Milne’s South Burlington office, where Milne’s campaign manager said he rarely interacted with him.

“He was perceived as a spy by his own party’s candidate for governor,” said Milne campaign manager Scott Fletcher.

Bartley denied being a spy, natch. But whether or not he was a spy, Fletcher’s statement tells me all I need to know about the state of candidate/party relations. If the campaign manager believes that the party planted a spy in his organization, there’s clearly no love (or trust, or respect) lost between the two.

Is the VTGOP going forwards or backwards?

Or, possibly, both at the same time?

VTDigger’s Laura Krantz dug up (yes, I did it) quite a few tasty tidbits about recent changes in the Vermont Republican Party in a story posted on Monday. Most of which concern the installation of Jeff Bartley as VTGOP Executive Director.

Before I go on, I’d like to note that just as Bartley was getting the job, his father was rushed to the hospital with lung cancer, and things aren’t looking too good. (I’m not disclosing a secret here, because Bartley himself has been Tweeting about it.) That really and truly sucks for Bartley; on a personal level of course, but it’s gotta be taking his attention away from his new and very challenging position. I can’t say I respect Bartley’s political skills, but as a fellow human being, I feel for his plight.

Still, back in the salt mines of politics, life goes on. And, per Krantz, Bartley’s nomination created some hard feelings within the party.

Bartley was chosen in a last-minute election announced slightly more than 24 hours before the Dec. 1 meeting. Insiders say the decision was rushed to leave no time for other candidates to come forward or for a search process to take place.

Would this be the same party that often hits on Gov. Shumlin over transparency? Yeah, thought so.

Bartley’s nomination was met with ambivalence at best, hostility at worst, and led to an unusually close executive committee vote on his hiring: six votes in favor, four against. Not exactly a stirring mandate.

The four “no” votes included three very prominent conservative Republicans who have been openly skeptical of Phil Scott’s party-broadening initiatives: outgoing treasurer Mark Snelling, Wendy WIlton, and Randy Brock. The fourth, Kevin Beal, was last seen in the blogosphere in  November 2013 when he ran for the “Chair of chairs” post (basically, a liaison between county chairs and the state party) against… wait for it…

… Jeff Bartley.

Okay, then.

I don’t think I’m overreaching to interpret the 6-4 vote as a defeat for the conservative wing of the party. Especially in light of this note from True North Reports’ Robert Maynard in my comments section:

Jeff Bartley is not a conservative and it should come as no surprise that conservatives would not het (sic) behind him as their candidate for party chair. He burnt a lot of bridges with consertavives (sic) and Tea Party types during the Len Britton campaign by telling the that his model for a Republican office holder was Maine’s Senator Olympia Snowe. (At least that is what I am told by the Tea Party members who worked on the campaign)

And if we know anything about “consertavives,” it’s that they have long memories for political slights.

According to Krantz’ article, Bartley was seen as party chair “Super Dave” Sunderland’s pick for the job. As for the rushed and secretive nature of Bartley’s hiring, it looks designed to forestall organized opposition and perhaps even prompt a walkout by top conservatives. Like Snelling, for instance.

And even Bartley backers were, uh, kinda lukewarm about it. Jackie Barnett and Stephen Webster, who both supported the hire, basically laid it at the feet of Sunderland.

Barnett: “My personal feeling is the chair (David Sunderland) should have whomever they want working for them.”

Webster: “This is David’s choice, and I’ve been supportive of David.”

Neither committee members had anything to say about Bartley’s political acumen.

It’s not exactly an ideal situation. Bartley is taking the helm of a party that, November gains notwithstanding, still has a hell of a long way to go. Quite a few influential party members, and perhaps an entire wing of the party, view him with suspicion if not hostility. Given his record, there are legitimate questions about his preparedness for the job. And he’s doing it all while his dad is in the hospital with a life-threatening illness.

I can’t say I have high expectations for Bartley, but I wish him luck.