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.