by Mathew Strong
The first day of the 2014 Vermont Legislative session dawned cold and cloudy, it was a great day for a beard. At 10:05am Speaker of the House Shap Smith gave his (apparently annual) chiding remarks about starting on time. Children from Manchester opened the day with a song, with lyrics referencing the Gettysburg Address. In his opening remarks Speaker Smith said that “most of us have the same goals for Vermont”, that there are many issues to be addressed this year including the “bumpy rollout of healthcare exchange”, but that he values everyone there.
House members made various announcements. Some addressed the new members that were taking their seats for the first time for various reasons. The largest excitement revolved around the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, and the chagrin of the NY Yankee fans in the chamber.
At 11am Governor Shumlin addressed the joint (house/senate) committee on health care. This is apparently quite rare and not within normal protocol, as the last time this happened was Howard Dean in 1992. The room was packed.
“The contractors we hired to construct the exchange website have underperformed at every turn” he said. He is going to establish an “independent review” of the health exchange rollout. In speaking about the hesitation regarding the health reform he said “we cannot afford our current system so we cannot afford to wait”, promising to push forward with the plans already in place. While providing no proof of the claim, he said “our health costs will double in the next ten years if we don’t do this”. “This is the right thing to do, and it’s the right time to do it.”
No questions from the press were asked at that time, although a few questions were asked by committee members. In the most heated exchange, Rep. Mary Morrissey asked the governor who was going to be doing the review and if it would be made public upon completion, stating her concern due to the UMass health care study, which cost VT taxpayers $300,000 was never revealed to the committee. Gov. Shumlin responded that it had and that she was mistaken. Rep. Doug Gage confirmed later that it in fact had not even been finished because in his opinion the numbers were not coming out as hoped by the administration.
Rep. Gage had tough questions for the new chairman of the Green Mountain Care Board, Al Gobeille, who spoke next after the governor. After citing the enormous costs of the program to date, he asked him if he knew how many people had signed up. In response, Chairman Gobeille said “I would defer that to Mark Larson, who knows that side better than I do and he can speak next”. Unfortunately, time ran out for the meeting, and in adjourning, Mark Larson never got a chance to tell them the numbers involved.
In speaking after the meeting, Rep. Vicki Strong, who was on the health care committee when it passed into legislation said that “Vermont actually had the highest insured rate in the country, and that of the 7% uninsured in the state, 3.5% did not want insurance coverage for one reason or another, so they did all of this for 3.5% of the population, and more than that has probably lost their insurance over it.”
Next came the first Republican Caucus meeting of the session. Rep Don Turner opened the meeting and briefly ran through the top concerns, and ducked out for a VPR interview. Rep. Mark Higley discussed a campaign finance reform bill, which apparently due to a technicality when a 1981 bill was repealed meant that there is technically no campaign finance law currently in the state. Rep. Peter Fagan discussed the upcoming budget issues. There is currently a $70,000,000 gap in the budget, and he said a recently revealed $20,000,000 gap in the retired teachers union health care fund means the gap is really $90,000,000, and if annualized, it is actually $120,000,000. And, to make matters worse, all the federal monies from past years for the stimulus package, the hurricane re-building, etc. is gone, it has all been allocated and used. Rep. Heidi Scheuermann discussed an education spending reform bill which she has been attempting to move forward for several sessions with little results with democratic opposition, but is optimistic this year for forward momentum.
After lunch the various committees met and began discussions on the agendas for the year. In response to a question raised in the caucus meeting regarding potential bills on gun control, Rep. Strong said “Since I am on the Judicial committee, the bills would most likely come through us, and there was no mention of it, but it’s still early”.