by Rob Roper
Much was made of the fact that Peter Shumlin’s 2012 budget speech was the earliest such speech in recent memory. However, given the lack of substance put forward, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that address didn’t take that long to write. While Republicans did find some points on which to agree with the governor, their criticisms had much more to do with the topics Shumlin conspicuously avoided.
The round numbers show a total budget that will exceed $5 billion for the first time in Vermont’s history. This represents a 5% plus increase over last year’s budget, following an 7% plus increase the year before.
Senator Randy Brock (R-Franklin), who announced he will be running against Shumlin in the fall, led the Republican response to the Governor’s speech.
“We’ve always been Vermont Strong,” said Brock. “But it’s time that we become Vermont Smart, and I think this budget falls short in that regard.”
Brock noted that the governor avoided the budget implications of eight hundred pound gorilla in the room – healthcare – completely. Costs which Brock described as “not unsubstantial.” Brock referenced what was perhaps a taste of what’s to come as far a as healthcare is concerned. “Today we saw for the first time, for example, an RFP (Request for Proposal) issued by the Green Mountain Care Board that calls for the hiring of a public relations and marketing company experienced in, quote, “message control,” unquote. I didn’t realize that Act 48 included a division of propaganda.”
The hypocrisy here is pretty astounding as advocates for government-run healthcare have argued repeatedly that the money spent by hospitals and pharmaceutical companies on advertising and public relations is something that needs to be eliminated so those dollars can be spent on patient care. “I’m amazed and astounded that the first RFP that they issue is for advertising and public relations expense!” said Brock.
Vermont’s energy future was another topic the governor didn’t touch with a 400 foot wind tower. Barring court intervention, Vermont Yankee is set to close via legislative action (which Shumlin led) in March, 2012. The impact of such an event on Vermont’s budget could be considerable. Over 600 employees at the Vermont plant would no longer have a place of employment. The cost to service the unemployed could be considerable, as would be the cost of replacing 628 megawatts of power. The lost revenue from direct and indirect Yankee taxes would be substantial. “[Shumlin] didn’t talk at all about energy and this move to a green and renewable energy future. An energy future that, according to the public service board, will add somewhere between $300 million and $450 million in cost to ratepayers over the next twenty years…” said Brock.
No mention was made by the governor regarding education financing, despite the fact that the Picus Report just delivered to the legislature revealed that since the implementation of Act 60 in 1997 Vermont’s per pupil costs have skyrocketed by 149.9% — the fastest rate of growth in the nation.
Rep. Brian Savage (R-Swanton), speaking for the Republican House Caucus, noted that there was “no mention of anything that had to do with any agricultural program. Last year in [the governor’s] remarks, agricultural programs were going to be in the forefront to create job growth. Job growth in Vermont was tied to agriculture. [This year] there was mention of that.”
Senator Peg Flory (R-Rutland) echoed the concerns of Savage and Brock, but also highlighted some areas of agreement surrounding the consolidation of supervisory union districts and public high school choice. Perhaps the brightest spot for potential bipartisan progress lies with permit reform. “We agree on permit reform,” said Flory. “It should be swift, predictable and fair.” But on all of these issues, Flory pointed out that Republicans have been pushing for these initiatives for years with little progress to show. “Let’s see if [Governor Shumlin] can make that happen.”
Senator Flory concluded, “It’s a little disturbing that [the budget] is still up 5.1 percent over last year. I’ve been trying to run quickly through the numbers and I’ve come up with from what he said in the speech another $60 million going into the budget. I haven’t found where that money is coming from, and I’d really be interested to know. If it’s not broad based taxes, who all is going to give us an extra $60 million?”
Lindsay Smith contributed to this report.