Tag Archives: Water bill

Is there going to be a health care bill? Like, at all?

The clock is ticking on the 2015 legislative session. We’re less than a month away from the usual adjournment, and a passel of “big bills” is just now crossing from the House to the Senate. These include the tax and budget bills, school reform legislation, the water cleanup bill, and the RESET ┬árenewable energy package.

Conspicuous by its absence from this roll call of heavy lifting: the health care bill. It’s been dramatically downsized, and is still being batted around among three House committees. This week, the Ways and Means Committee barely managed to achieve a majority on a financing package after a lot of hand-wringing and internal disagreement. The Health Care Committee produced a scaled-down version of reforms costing about $20 million per year. But the Appropriations Committee, which has to approve the reform spending, has yet to weigh in. Approps chair Mitzi Johnson says her panel will hear testimony on the bill next week.

If that committee takes any route besides endorsement of Health Care’s bill, there may be a fresh round of back-and-forth between those two panels, just as there was between Health Care and Ways and Means on the revenue package.

And then, sometime next week at the absolute soonest, the health care bill will make its way, bloodied, bruised and limping, to the House floor.

If not “the absolute soonest”? We’re getting awfully close to mid-April.

Frankly, it’d take an uncommon outbreak of consensus in the House and between House and Senate for a health care bill of any kind to achieve passage in this session.

There’s a flood-stage ice jam of legislation forming in the Senate. This morning I watched one committee chair working with his staffer to find time to accommodate long and growing lists of potential witnesses. Can we assemble early some days? Can we schedule Monday meetings, an unusual and undesirable step, especially for lawmakers from distant parts of the state? The thought in my mind was, how can they possibly get all this done?

Breaking that jam and moving major bills will depend on the Senate running uncharacteristically smoothly, with unusually effective leadership (cough*John Campbell*cough) and widespread voluntary ego-suppression in Vermont’s Most Self-Important Deliberative Body.

The health care bill, if it gets to the Senate in some form, will take its place in line behind the other Big Bills. Most importantly, it will be the last of the big revenue bills to hit the Senate, and who knows how much appetite they have for tax increases. There’s a significant cohort of moderate-to-conservative Senate Democrats that can diminish or kill any tax measures, and they may be out for blood after pretty much having to approve new money for Lake Champlain and to fill part of the budget gap.

From what I’ve heard, the Senate’s outlook is even more of a mystery this year than usual, and that’s saying something. Big picture, the odds appear to be against any meaningful health care reform getting through the legislature this year.

Which would be a bad thing in three important ways:

— The bill would reduce the sinfully large Medicaid gap. The Shumlin plan would substantially reduce it; the House Health Care plan would make a series dent, at least for primary care providers.

— The bill, in either form, includes more money for proven cost-saving strategies in Blueprint for Health and the Green Mountain Care Board. Continuing to bend the cost curve is crucial to the long-term success of the reform project.

— And third, for those who insist on the humanitarian angle, is that either bill would ease access for thousands of working poor Vermonters.

Lawmakers and legislative leadership know all this. If they didn’t, the bill wouldn’t have gotten as far as it has in a difficult year. Improving health care is a serious priority — but so are a lot of other things. It’d be a shame if health care fell victim to the legislature’s time crunch, but it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise.

A pretty darn good day at the Statehouse

Wednesday was a big day for the legislature’s battle to get through a long and tough agenda. The House passed two huge bills, and the Senate approved a positive step in voter access.

Senate first. After Sen. Dustin Degree lost his repeated efforts to derail, slow down, or cripple the bill, the full Senate approved same-day voter registration on a voice vote.

Degree was pushing a mild form of the Republican “voter fraud” canard. The Bush Administration tried very hard for eight years to find and prosecute cases of vote fraud, and produced an average of less than one case per year. But there was Degree, acknowledging that “Fraud may be minuscule,” but insisting we ought to take steps to prevent this mythical plague upon our land.

If the bill passes the House, it wouldn’t take effect until 2017 because Vermont’s town clerks are creatures of habit who are loath to accept change or take on new responsibilities. They insisted on a two-year delay, and still want to fight for tougher rules. Our Public Servants, first and foremost guarding their own turf.

On to the House, which approved two bills that can be fairly described as “landmark.” Neither bill is perfect, but both represent substantial accomplishments.

The “water bill,” H.35, passed on a 126-10 vote, with only a handful of Republicans saying no. It establishes a Clean Water Fund and provides for $8 million a year in funding. This accomplishment is diminished by the fact that the state HAD to do something, or face the regulatory wrath of the feds. Because Vermont is, and has been for a long time, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Still, getting almost 95% of lawmakers to support a bill that impinges on large segments of the economy and raises new revenue wasn’t a simple task. After a confirmatory vote Thursday, the bill moves to the Senate.

The education bill passed by a narrow margin, but still substantial: 88-59. This one was a tougher sell because education is near and dear to the hearts of every student, parent, grandparent, and community in the state. And near to the wallets of every taxpayer.

This was vividly on display in Wednesday’s Democratic caucus meeting. After an overview of the water bill drew only a couple of questions, the presentation of the ed bill had Dem lawmakers popping up all over the room. Many were specifically concerned about schools and districts in their own communities.

Any kind of education reform bill is a tough haul. This makes substantial reforms in funding and governance. Generally speaking, it’s a decent effort. I think we do have to do something significant to bend the cost curve, and some form of consolidation is almost inevitable. Student populations are declining, especially in rural areas; tiny schools are in no one’s best interest. Not students, not taxpayers, and not other government initiatives that might benefit if the public-school burden wasn’t so heavy.

Both bills will head for the Senate, which makes me cringe. Based on past experience, you never know what the hell they’re going to do. But maybe they’ll surprise me. There are some good folks in the Senate — definitely two more (Becca Balint, Brian Campion) than there were in years past. The atmosphere and legislative product will greatly benefit from the addition by subtraction of Peter Galbraith, whose voluntary retirement from the Senate was a blessing for us all. We should see a lot less capricious obstructionism, if nothing else.

Hard times still to come, many long days and debates — some dramatic, some tedious. But April First was a good day. No foollin’.