Daily Archives: March 16, 2015

For health care expansion and SSBT, a long road ahead

Last week brought some relatively cheery news for fans of better access to health care and of the sugar-sweetened beverage tax. The House Health Care Committee passed a fairly wide-ranging bill that would help close the Medicaid gap, provide more assistance to working-class Vermonters seeking health insurance and encourage more primary care providers, among other things. To pay for all that, the Committee opted for a two-pronged approach: the revised 0.3% payroll tax proposed by Gov. Shumlin, plus the two-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

A good package, a nice bill. But is it a meaningful step, or simply a McGuffin? When you read between the lines of Committee chair Bill Lippert’s statement, and see the slightly shopworn look on his face, well, you start thinking the latter.

I have no illusions that what we propose will be a final product at the end of the session, but it was our responsibility… to identify and articulate priorities that could make a difference now and could be investments for the future, even in a time of tight budgetary constraints.

Glass half full, or glass half empty? I hear a guy resigning himself to the inevitable disembowelment of his bill.

Enough inference. The next stop is the Ways and Means Committee, where opinion is split on the SSBT and there’s widespread opposition to the payroll tax. After that, well, there’s a lot of room for pessimism.

There’s little appetite for raising taxes in Montpelier — or should I say “raising more taxes,” since tax increases will almost certainly be part of a budget-balancing deal. (Front runner: Ways and Means chair Janet Ancel’s plan to cap itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction.) There’s also the EPA-mandated Lake Champlain cleanup that needs funding. In this climate, it’ll be hard to justify funding the health care package as well.

Regarding the SSBT specifically, Governor Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith don’t like it. Really, there aren’t many real fans; some just see it as the least bad option. Most lawmakers seem allergic to the payroll tax, even in reduced form. But let’s say, just for the heck of it, that the Health Care Committee’s bill passes the House. What awaits in the Senate, that notorious den of centrism where liberal House bills go to die?

“I wouldn’t predict what a vote today would be,” says Senate Finance Committee chair Tim Ashe (more D and less P with each passing day). “I’d say they both start in difficult places in terms of a Senate vote. Individual committees may be more or less favorable, but in the whole Senate, both would struggle to pass at this time.”

Gulp. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. So I guess that leaves us with no money for enhancing our partially-fixed health care system?

“That’s an open question,” says Ashe. “There are the resources to pay for new initiatives or increased support for existing initiatives can come from existing sources or new revenues.”

Oh really? You’ve found a pot of money somewhere?

“I’ll mention just one resource. …This year, Vermonters without insurance are going to ship about six million bucks to the federal government in a penalty. Next year that money goes up to 12 to 14 because the penalty basically doubles.

“So 23,000 Vermonters will be shipping all that money to Washington, and they will get nothing for it. Question is, is there a way to help them NOT send the money to Washington and get nothing for it, but to keep the dollars here and give them something for it? I don’t know what the answer to that is, [but] it makes you scratch your head and say, ‘Well, jeez, wouldn’t it be easier if they just had insurance here?'”

Nice to see the Senator thinking outside the box, BUT… he himself admits he doesn’t know the answer to that. And even if we could somehow funnel the penalty money into health insurance, we’re talking “about six million bucks” this year and 12 mill the year after that. That’s a far cry from the Health Care Committee’s $70 million a year.

Six million, or even 12, isn’t going to buy you a whole lot of improvement. The Medicaid gap would remain painfully wide, and good-quality insurance would remain out of reach for many working Vermonters.

But that’s the kind of year we’ve got. Best to ratchet down expectations.

Of course, we’re now looking at budget gaps in the $50 million range for each of the following two years. Substantial health care reform keeps receding further over the horizon. And universal access? Rapidly approaching pipe dream territory.

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Okay, who replaced John Campbell with a pod person?

The Political Reporter is a flocking creature. It tends to congregate in large numbers where there’s a commotion or a generous food supply — or, sometimes, for no apparent reason.

On Friday, the flock gathered at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the gun bill — the reduced version of S. 31, Now Expanded Background-Check Free!   (Correction: it’s now S.141 for those keeping score at home.)

It wasn’t the most important thing going on that day. I’d be hard-pressed to put it in the top five, actually; supporters and opponents are all het up about the bill, but I’m not. As a gun control measure it’s a teeny tiny baby step. As a potential threat to Second Amendment rights, it’s… well, it’s not. The Domino Theory was discredited way back in Vietnam.

So I was elsewhere on Friday afternoon. More on that later.

The only thing that was interesting about it, to me, was captured by the Vermont Press Bureau’s Neal Goswami: 

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, an original sponsor of S.31, pushed [Committee chair Dick] Sears hard to advance a bill. He spent considerable time in the Judiciary Committee, often seated near Sears, monitoring its progress.

“I think his behavior has been fascinating,” Sears said.

His attention was bothersome to Sears, and prompted the veteran lawmaker, who is known to express his displeasure at times, to offer Campbell total control earlier this week.

“There was one point where I asked him if he really wanted to chair the committee,” Sears said.

John Campbell, recently seen taking a restful nap. (Not exactly as illustrated.)

John Campbell, recently seen taking a restful nap. (Not exactly as illustrated.)

This is highly unusual, to put it mildly. I haven’t checked the record in detail, but I’d say this is unprecedented in Campbell’s frequently undercooked tenure as Pro Tem.

First, I don’t recall him ever being inspired about a piece of legislation. Serene detachment has been the order of the day. (I recall a time when I was watching Senate debate from the balcony. Campbell sat at his desk leafing through a woodworking catalog, paying no attention to the debate. It was inspiring.) It’s rare, like a snow day in Hell, for Campbell to show real passion for an issue.

Second, this is rather a blatant violation of Senate comity. I daresay it’s not unusual for a Pro Tem to pull the levers behind the scenes (it’s pretty unusual for Campbell, but not for your average Pro Tem), but it’s downright bizarre for a Pro Tem to publicly show up a committee chair. Sears’s reaction was actually rather diplomatic. Well, diplomatic for Sears, who guards his turf like the alpha male he thinks he is. Although there’s no truth, as far as I know, to the rumor that he tinkles a little on the Judiciary Committee doorjambs every morning.

Third, Campbell’s even making noise about openly opposing Gov. Shumlin.

“The governor made it very clear how he feels about this bill. He doesn’t support it,” Campbell said. “The governor is very powerful and the administration is very powerful. As such, I guess I had to step up my involvement.”

Superman: “As such, I guess, I had to stop the runaway train.”

So it’s weird doings on the gun bill. Campbell’s normal posture, when an issue gets divisive, is to stay the hell out of the way. There have been many occasions during his tenure when a bit of leadership — or arm-twisting — would have broken a logjam and avoided unnecessary strife. In moments like these, John Campbell usually stays out of the way.

I don’t get the sudden onslaught of passion for a bill that simply doesn’t do that much. Makes me wonder if that’s the Real John Campbell or an alien-crafted facsimile.