Legislative Session Blunts Hope for Shared Prosperity

by Bruce Lisman

As the 2012 Vermont legislative session nears to a close, Campaign for Vermont sees little reason to cheer that Montpelier has acted to expand prosperity and accountability.

When the session opened, our elected leaders set an agenda of vital importance to the broad-based prosperity of Vermonters: a new energy plan; the framework for a new health care system; and a sustainable state budget. Notably missing on their agenda was meaningful reforms to Vermont’s education funding system.

In all four areas the Legislature has failed to make significant progress and in fact might even take us backward.

Health Care Coverage – Campaign for Vermont supports health care reform providing access and affordability for all Vermonters. Our current health care system is a drag on economic prosperity. Unfortunately, so is Montpelier’s “solution.” The legislature, supported by Governor Shumlin, has passed a law, even more limiting than federal requirements, which says individuals and employers with fewer than 50 employees can only purchase insurance from Vermont’s Health Insurance Exchange. However, the legislature did not force this requirement on public unions and employers with more than 50 employees; they can still purchase insurance anywhere they’d like. As crafted the Vermont Exchange will not provide a “robust marketplace” for consumers of health care as envisioned by President Obama. Vermont’s approach isn’t help, and it’s certainly not choice, it’s just another top-down mandate.

Worst of all, leaders in Montpelier won’t say before November’s election how much their health care plan will cost. What little they have shared does not bode well; many small businesses may pay 18% more than they do today. Further, Montpelier seems ready to repeal Catamount Health Plan, Vermont’s program for the uninsured, but not repeal the Catamount Employer Assessment that costs Vermont’s small businesses $9.8 million annually.

Energy – Campaign for Vermont believes the Public Service Board (PSB) should focus on its primary mission of securing “least cost” electric rates for ratepayers, while sustaining Vermont’s enviable carbon footprint. Subsidizing renewable energy alternatives deserves a role, but not first place. Unfortunately, the legislature is pushing the PSB in just the opposite direction. Through strident opposition to low cost nuclear power and natural gas, Montpelier is pushing Vermont ratepayers toward more expensive electricity with higher carbon emissions. New mandates will require utilities and their customers to pay the renewable power industry as much as 6 times current market rates. Current subsidies will burden ratepayers by over $17 million annually; yet, this session our leaders are working to double this amount. Higher electric rates are not a pathway to prosperity.

Budget – With regard to both the state budget and education funding, our leaders have Vermont heading for higher taxes. The 6.4% state budget increase on track for approval is not sustainable. Vermont’s underlying economic growth is not growing at 6.4%. Unlike the rest of Vermont, Montpelier is not “making do with less.” Vermonters deserve to know their money is being wisely spent and carefully managed. Our citizens who are reliant upon state services need to know these programs are on solid financial ground and will be there to lead them to the next rung up the economic ladder.

Education – The legislature continues to abdicate the leadership necessary to enact education reforms. Despite fewer students in our schools, Vermonters will see higher property tax rates due to politicians’ $27 million raid on the education fund to help fuel the 6.4% state spending increase. Vermonters pay top dollar for a school system that does not achieve top results. The prosperity of Vermont’s children depends upon financial reforms that support achievement-based outcomes in our school system.

Actions speak louder than words. Montpelier, in its dealings with health care, energy, school reform, and the state budget s saying Vermonters: “you will pay more, receive the same or less, will not be told why, but just trust us.” Policymakers in Montpelier remain unfocused as to building a vibrant economy that puts our citizens on a path to shared prosperity.

About the author: Bruce Lisman established Campaign for Vermont because he is optimistic about a vibrant and prosperous Vermont economy. He lives in Shelburne, was born in Burlington’s Old North End and attended Burlington public schools before going on to graduate from the University of Vermont.