State of the State: Tough sledding

Governor Shumlin’s State of the State address wasn’t quite the nothing-burger you might expect from a lame duck. But if early returns are anything to go by, the actual impact of his address may be a lot closer to a nothing-burger.

There were a few notable initiatives and ideas, but most of them got slapped around almost as soon as he left the podium. And I’m not talking about the predictable Republican naysaying; I’m talking about Democratic criticism. In past years, Shumlin has had a very hard time rescuing high-profile initiatives that get off to a rocky start at the Statehouse, and that’s likely to be even more true in his lame-duck year.

Other ideas are sure to garner opposition on January 21, when the Governor delivers his final budget address. That’s when he’ll have to explain how he wants to pay for new or expanded programs that cost money. (As opposed to, say, paid sick leave, which won’t cost the government a dime.) In the past, the Legislature hasn’t reacted kindly to Shumlin’s budget-cutting suggestions (see: Earned Income Tax Credit, 2013), and he hasn’t reacted well to legislative alternatives.

We can break down the new stuff into two categories: items that will cost money, and those that won’t. At least they won’t cost the state any money.


Marijuana legalization. Perhaps the most notable feature of Shumlin’s speech, it would be a notable addition to his legacy as a backer of no-cost social issues. But House Speaker Shap Smith, who always has his finger on the pulse, has repeatedly said the issue is not ready for passage. I don’t think Shumlin’s terms on legalization will cause much trouble, but when there’s any doubt around the Statehouse halls, lawmakers generally choose not to do anything.

Divestment. Shumlin wants Vermont to divest from coal stocks and from ExxonMobil, the corporation covered up its own research on climate change. You’d think this might be a gimme along the ilnes of, say, GMO labeling or marriage equality — progressive causes with low price tags. But State Treasurer Beth Pearce has come out against divestment. That’ll make it a tougher sell because of her sterling reputation on fiscal matters and the inconvenient fact that she was originally appointed to the office by one Peter Shumlin.

Changes in renewable regulation. Shumlin wants to encourage the siting of renewables on already-developed land. Which would seem to rule out any new wind farms. He also wants to emphasize “Vermont scale” renewables, and siting where there is already enough capacity in the grid.

For those interested in meeting Vermont’s stated renewables goal, Shumlin’s late-term retreat has to be puzzling and dismaying. He could be making a final push on an issue that’s been one of his strong points; instead, he’s intent on throwing obstacles in the path and cosseting those who are fighting against renewable deployment. His positive, but largely symbolic, advocacy for partial divestment doesn’t make up for his sudden attack of pickiness on renewables.

Paid sick leave. This one passed the House in 2015 and nearly passed the Senate. It’s almost certain to pass this year. But if this is the most notable victory on Shumlin’s ledger, that’s really not saying much.

Delay or repeal Act 46 spending caps on local school districts. You know, if I were Dave Sharpe, chair of the House Education Committee, I’d be kinda pissed off right now. Sharpe struggled throughout the session with how to control school costs. Every idea had more than its share of critics. Nothing was popular. So he managed to get a bill out of committee and it was good enough to win legislative approval — and now Shumlin wants to undo a crucial provision. On his way out the door. Thanks a lot, Guv.

How will this play out? Good grief, I don’t know. The whole school funding/governance issue is such a nut-crusher. People are upset over property taxes, but they also don’t want to do anything that might change all the things they like about their schools. It seems to me that Vermonters want to have their cake and eat it too.

Yes, I hear that voice in the back saying “What about unfunded mandates and cost-shifting?” And yes, I agree that the state has been guilty of some cost-shifting. And, as VTDigger reported in a story you might have missed over the holidays (posted December 27), school districts have been dealing with a lot of change in state law. The consolidation aspects of Act 46, the provision of universal pre-K programs, and providing each student with personal learning plans and access to early college courses.

That is indeed a lot to digest. And the extra costs incurred make it harder for districts to keep spending under Act 46 targets. But what’s the Legislature to do? It’s still hearing the anguished cries of constituents for property tax relief. It’s hearing the drumbeat of Republican criticism heading into a campaign season with a very strong GOP candidate for governor.

No matter what they do, they’re kinda screwed. Which probably means they’ll tinker instead of taking decisive action. Which will fail to make anyone any less unhappy.

Limits on new prescriptions for pain medication. This is a new concept, and I don’t have a good feel for how it will play in the Legislature. It seems a sensible move, and it wouldn’t cost the state any money. Will health care professionals take issue? Will Big Pharma bankroll a stout lobbying effort? (Last year, there was an intense campaign against the sugar-sweetened beverage tax. The money came from Big Soda, but the public faces were Mom & Pop retailers. Maybe Big Pharma can bring a bunch of local pharmacists to Montpelier.) It seems like a good idea, but it might slip through the cracks in a very busy year.

I guess I’m saying it will probably fail, or pass in considerably weakened form. Blue ribbon panel, anyone?

And hey, folks, those are the easy things.

Items with price tags

Step Up. Shumlin wants $2 million to provide a semester of free college or job training for lower-income students. I’m sure there will be a lot of support, but the rubber will hit the road on January 21. Nobody wants to raise taxes this year, so the $2 million will have to be offset by cuts elsewhere. Will the Governor find a source acceptable to the Legislature? Seems unlikely.

Also, $2 million is nice, but it’s kind of a drop in the bucket when it comes to affordable post-secondary education. I suppose it’s the best Shumlin can do (or hope for), but it doesn’t exactly scream “legacy.” Bringing higher education within reach of more Vermonters is a challenge the Shumlin administration hasn’t tried to tackle. There’s been minor efforts around the edges, but that’s all.

Beefing up our Human Services workforce. Shumlin wants to add 35 more social workers. You may recall that in 2014, there were three separate reports indicating a need for more social workers. Those reports haven’t been addressed, and I’m sure the Legislature would like to approve those new positions. I’m equally sure that they will have a very hard time identifying cuts to offset the new investment.

Plus, it’s likely their top priority will be the other Human Services item in Shumlin’s address: better security for AHS offices. After the fatal shooting of Lara Sobel, improving security would seem to be the least we could do.

Eliminating the waitlist for opiate addiction treament. A laudable goal, and a necessary capstone for Shumlin’s staunch advocacy for fighting opiate addiction. And once again, the real challenge is finding the money. Check back on January 21.

Expanding the Enterprise Fund. I’ll write more about this in a separate post. The Enterprise Fund was created two years ago, and funded to the tune of $5 million. It will expire unless the Legislature renews it. The bulk of the $5 million has gone to IBM successor GlobalFoundries; it’s a drop in the bucket for a worldwide corporation that works in the billions of dollars. Has it done any good? We don’t know, and the Enterprise Fund is so vague and unstructured that there’s no way to evaluate it.

I doubt the Legislature will find the money for any significant expansion of the Enterprise Fund. I’d just as soon they let it expire, frankly; there is no proof that it does anything whatsoever to attract or retain jobs. It operates as a slush fund for the Governor, with the merest hint of oversight by the Emergency Board.

If the Legislature wants to retain the program, they should give it a thorough scrubbing and impose some real checks and balances. I hate to be cynical, but they’re more likely to let it continue with no increase in funding, or maybe even a funding cutback. It’s hard to get lawmakers to create a new program; it’s equally hard to get them to kill an existing one.

Conclusion. Boy, I’m not especially sanguine about the prospects for a productive 2016 session. I think the Governor could have set himself up for a better valedictory if he’d worked with legislative leaders to develop proposals with a good chance of passing. After all, state lawmakers are personally invested in a productive session, because they’ll have to run for re-election this year. They need positive stuff to run on.

But it seems like the Governor has never included top lawmakers in his State of the State process, so why change now?

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