The media postmortems on Legislature ’16 are rolling in, and they’re not kind to Governor Shumlin.
The Burlington Free Press’ Sunday front page has a big ol’ photo of the Guv looking nonplussed, the bright lights showcasing the furrows on his brow, with a headline reading “BIG REQUESTS FALL SHORT.” The story emphasizes his pushes for legalized marijuana and divestment from some fossil fuel stocks, which both fell short.
Over at VTDigger, the headline slyly referred to Shumlin’s legislative accomplishments as “nothing burgers,” a phrase destined for his headstone. The story, by ol’ buddy Mark Johnson, was just shy of devastating.
While the governor touted numerous accomplishments in his final late-night adjournment address — and some lawmakers did too — many who serve in the Legislature saw something different this session: a once powerful chief executive weakened by a close election, who lost support on the left when he dropped plans for a single-payer health care system, was hurt by ongoing problems with the health care exchange and then saw any remaining leverage dissipate when he announced last year that he would not seek re-election.
Indeed, Shumlin’s 2016 agenda was largely jettisoned by lawmakers. But there is another way to look at the just-concluded session. It accomplished quite a few things that went almost unnoticed in Vermont, but would have been big news almost anywhere else.
That list includes paid sick leave; automatic voter registration; a privacy bill hailed by the Vermont ACLU as “a big win for Vermont privacy”; a grace period for motorists with unpaid tickets, cited as “a huge step forward” by Christopher Curtis of Vermont Legal Aid; the “ban the box” bill, that prevents employers from forcing applicants to pre-disclose criminal records; and a bill that reforms the way Vermont deals with young offenders. Its provisions are designed to lower recidivism rates.
Most of those items weren’t on the Governor’s wish list, and they come with small or nonexistent price tags. Well, they won’t cost the state government much if anything.
So the legislative session wasn’t a complete waste of time. But on the big issues, there was either incremental progress or none at all:
On the left, Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P – Washington, said the last two years produced little and the governor had the wrong priorities, pushing the legalization of marijuana instead of facing issues like the cost of college, homelessness and the tax code.
Indeed, that’s a decent summary of Shumlin’s six-year governorship: significant progress on stuff that didn’t cost much money, and disappointment on the Big Issues. After six years of unchallenged Democratic rule, we still have an outdated, leaky tax system, a health care system that’s only partially fixed, ongoing problems with funding and delivering human services, colleges and universities that are out of reach for many young Vermonters, inmates serving their time in distant for-profit prisons, business incentive programs that are ripe for abuse (EB-5) or cannot be evaluated properly (Vermont Enterprise Fund), and a mental health care system that’s bursting at the seams.
As for the 2016 session, the glass is maybe not half full, but it’s one-third full at least. And given a tough budget situation, a lame-duck Governor, and the leaders of the House and Senate on their way out the door, I suppose that’s not too bad.