Daily Archives: March 20, 2015

Is this the end of Rico?

Well, if this isn’t the mother of all Friday newsdumps.

After 18 months of headaches caused by Vermont Health Connect, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Friday that he’s prepared to replace the online health insurance marketplace if it fails to meet two new deadlines.

(Note: According to VTDigger, Shumlin first made his announcement on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show. Credit where it’s due.)

Yeezus. I make a little day trip to New Hampshire, and this is what happens? I may never leave Vermont again.

“This is not an attractive option,” Shumlin’s chief of health care reform, Lawrence Miller, said at the press conference.

Miller added that “bubonic plague can ruin your day, and zombies are bad news.”

In the past I have occasionally been guilty of hyperbole, so it’s understandable if you take this with a grain of salt, but…

This doesn't end well.

This doesn’t end well.

If Vermont Health Connect fails, it is the end of Peter Shumlin’s political career.

It wouldn’t be the last act; he’d still remain governor for another year and a half. But the abandonment of VHC would be a death blow to whatever’s left of his reputation for managerial competence. And trustworthiness. He will have a simple, stark choice: Serve out his term as best he can, step aside with grace and dignity (and hopefully a big show of unity with a consensus candidate for the Democratic nomination)… or go down in a metaphorical burst of tommygun fire.

Mind, all this is contingent on the failure of VHC, which is far from a sure thing. But given its track record (and the Governor’s), today’s announcement has to send shivers down the spines of everyone who’s invested political capital in the Shumlin Growth Fund.

The song goes like this: assurances of success; bumps in the road; conditional assurances of success; postponements; failures; promises to learn lessons and do better; new plans with later deadlines; fresh assurances; lather, rinse, repeat.

We have just gone from “assurances of success” to “conditional assurances.”

The fallback plan, should VHC again fail to meet functionality targets, is a hybrid marketplace: federally supported but state-regulated. It’s not a terrible Plan B, but it would put the lie to every assurance Governor Shumlin has made about Vermont Health Connect since its launch. It would hand the Republicans a huge quantity of ammunition, and it would permanently sink Shumlin’s managerial reputation.

The Governor’s new timeline:

Shumlin said he would only deploy the contingency plan if Vermont Health Connect is unable to automatically process changes in account information by May or if it’s unable to smoothly reenroll users by October. Even then, the state would not adopt the new system until October 2016, in time for the 2017 open-enrollment period.

Oh great. So if VHC isn’t working by October, then we’ll be activating Plan B right in the middle of the next gubernatorial campaign.

And what if anything — at all — goes wrong? It drags on until after the election. If that happens, it may not matter who the Democrats nominate.

If all that happens, Peter Shumlin will not only go down in history as a failure. He’ll also be the guy who squandered a king’s ransom in political capital for his Democratic Party.

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The long and winding (and circular) road

It’s been a very long week at the House Appropriations Committee, which has been trying to close the remaining $18 million or so in the budget gap for Fiscal Year 2016. In today’s session, members tried everything they could think of, and then some, to balance the budget while avoiding some of the “big uglies” — the proposed cuts that nobody wanted to make.

Shall I cut to the chase? After advancing through the five stages of grief, they ended up accepting pretty much the entire list, including $6 million from LIHEAP, $2 million from a Department of Children and Families weatherization program, a $1.6 million hit to Reach Up, a million-dollar cut for the Vermont Veterans Home, a reduction in state funds for Vermont PBS, and $817,000 from Vermont Interactive Television.

This list was dubbed a “wish list” by the committee — not because they wanted to cut the items, but precisely the opposite: their wish was to avoid having to cut these items that were put on the chopping block in Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal.

There were a couple of adjustments. As reported in my previous post, the committee adopted Rep. Maty Hooper’s plan to phase out the state prison at Windsor and devote some of the savings to re-entry programs aimed at reducing the inmate population and avoiding the export of more inmates to out-of-state prisons. And a $500,000 cut to the judiciary system was technically made a one-time cut, with the understanding that the system will reform itself in the coming year to generate equivalent savings in future years.

All the “wish list” cuts adopted by Appropriations added up to a little over $14 million in savings, mainly from the Agency of Human Services. Which is almost inevitable; the committee was looking for cuts only in General Fund programs, which leaves out a significant share of state spending. Most General Fund spending is in Human Services, so that’s where the cuts had to come from.

Mind you, nothing was finally decided today. Some committee members still hope to restore some of the cuts, but in order to do so, they’ll have to find equivalent cuts elsewhere. (Appropriations has no authority to increase revenues; it only oversees the spending of state funds.) As they put it, “buy back” some cuts. That seems unlikely, however; at day’s end, the committee was still $1.93 million short of a balanced budget. So in order to restore any of today’s cuts, they’d have to find more than $2 million in savings elsewhere.

Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson looking for cuts of any size, large or small.

Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson looking for cuts of any size, large or small.

And they tried really hard today. Most of the committee’s Democratic majority did not want to impose Shumlin’s cuts. Committee Chair Mitzi Johnson repeatedly invited members to come up with their own substitutes. And they all looked high and low, with almost no success.

At one point, Johnson asked members to split up into “unlike pairs” to discuss the “wish list” and other possible cuts. That session lasted almost an hour, and ended with several members making cellphone calls in pursuit of information on possible savings. Items of as little as a few thousand dollars were offered.

In the end, they wound up back at the “wish list.” In the absence of any alternatives, and with guidance from House leadership that only a certain amount of new revenue would be available, the Appropriations Committee bit the bullet and tentatively approved all the cuts on the “wish list.” It also approved a couple million in additional savings that weren’t on the “wish list.”

Watching all this made me appreciate how hard it is to find savings in the budget. For all the conservatives’ cries of waste and abuse and lavish spending, Republican members had no more success than Democrats in finding fat to trim. In the end, committee members of all stripes were reluctantly united behind a budget proposal that will bring painful cuts to many areas of government. There were no easy calls.

This is an early step in the process. The budget has to get through the full House, where trouble may loom in the form of a Republican/liberal coalition that opposes the budget for very different reasons. If it gets through the House, it’ll have to make its way through the Senate’s often weird and unpredictable gauntlet. But the Appropriations Committee tried and tried and tried; and in the end, it couldn’t find more palatable alternatives to Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal.

Mary Hooper pulls some fat from the budgetary fire

Previously I brought you bitter tidings of a budget cut that would mean sending more Vermont inmates to for-profit, out-of-state prisons.

Well, my pessimism was premature. Today, Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Breezy Acres) introduced a plan to phase in the closure of the Southeast State Correctional Facility, and devote some of the projected savings to new re-entry programs designed to lower the inmate population. The plan appeared sound and convincing to the House Appropriations Committee. If it all works as planned, Vermont’s inmate census will be low enough when the prison closes, that no out-of-state transfers will be required. (Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito had estimated that 100 more inmates would have to be exported to the tender mercies of the Corrections Corporation of America.)

And bonus: the released inmates will be better prepared to make a successful re-entry into civilian life. That makes them less likely to re-offend.

Her proposal was accepted by the Appropriations Committee and folded into its budget plan. I don’t know all the details of Hooper’s proposal; I didn’t have a chance to speak with her today. But it’s good news. It turns a negative into a positive, and still allows the state to bank $1.7 million in savings from the prison closure.

More on today’s hot and heavy Appropriations action coming soon. Warning: not a lot of good news.