MONTPELIER — Local lawmakers said they will remember the 2011 legislative session for being short on funds but long on accomplishments and punctuality.
The gavel fell on the session on Friday, May 6 — one week ahead of schedule and in spite of a very busy agenda that included health care reform and a fiscal year 2012 budget that was $176 million in the red at the outset.
Working at a sometimes feverish pace, the General Assembly passed a bill that could lead to a single-payer health care system by 2017 and endorsed a balanced state spending plan that does not require an increase in broad-based taxes.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, during an interview with the Addison Independenton Monday, said he will sign both of those major bills and many others that emerged from the 2011 session.
“It was a great session,” Shumlin said in appraising the work state lawmakers accomplished during the past four months. “In my wildest dreams I didn’t think we’d get as much accomplished as we did.”
High among those accomplishments was bill H.202, which lays the foundation for a single-payer health care system known as Green Mountain Care. The bill, among other things, establishes the Green Mountain Care Board in July. That will set up of a Vermont Health Benefit Exchange and will sort out the details of the single-payer system — including a budget, the benefit package and how those services will be paid for. The Legislature will have the final say on the board’s recommendations.
Two Addison County lawmakers played a big role in shaping H.202 — Sen. Claire Ayer. D-Weybridge, and Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln.
Ayer, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said she is looking forward to seeing the appointment of the five-member Green Mountain Care Board so that it can begin its research.
“There is a lot of information we need to double-check,” Ayer said.
Fisher, vice chairman of the House Health Care Committee, was also excited by the passage of H.202.
“Many of us have been working for decades for real system reform in health care,” said Fisher. “I am very excited to continue this work. In some respects (passing H.202) was the easy part; the hard work is to make it happen.”
BALANCING THE BUDGET
This first phase of health care reform did not require a major infusion of state funds — and that’s a good thing, because dollars remain in short supply. Lawmakers cobbled together a budget that got rid of a $176 million revenue shortfall through a combination of cuts, revenue adjustments and an improving state economy that boosted the state’s tax yield by an unanticipated $29.1 million. Savings were derived in part through $12 million in concessions by the state employees’ union; a $38.6 million cut in human services programs; $4.1 million in avoided unemployment insurance interest payments waived (for at least the time being) by the federal government; and $1.7 million in miscellaneous cuts.
It should also be noted that the budget is also balanced by not transferring $23 million from the state’s General Fund to the Education Fund, meaning that local property taxpayers will likely have to pick up the slack in fiscal year 2013 or search for cuts that amount to about 2 percent statewide as part of the Challenges for Change mandate.
A recalculation and extension of the state’s tax on health care providers (like Porter Hospital), which amounts to about $5.9 million spread among all hospitals in the state, a boost in the cigarette tax (of 38 cents per pack) that will generate $3 million more than current taxes, were in addition to another $24.2 million in new revenue.
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, noted lawmakers used $60 million in one-time revenues to help fill the fiscal 2012 budget gap. Since those revenues are not likely to be available next year, the Legislature will start the fiscal year 2013 budget process with at least $60 million in the red, while others are forecasting a shortfall closer to $70 million.
“I am very concerned about next year,” said Sharpe, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Sharpe and Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, said state finances could get even worse if the federal government, as anticipated, cuts back on the money it distributes to the states. Jewett noted that one-third of Vermont’s $4.69 billion state budget is federal money.
“None of these decisions were easy to make,” said Jewett, who penned a legislative wrap-up column that can be found on Page 7A. “It is a budget that weans the state off of its reliance on federal stimulus funding in a fiscally and politically balanced manner.”
Sandwiched in between the work on the budget and health care were other accomplishments heralded by lawmakers:
• A bill aimed at reducing recidivism for nonviolent lawbreakers. The recidivism bill sets in place new policies and programs that lawmakers are counting on to reduce the prospects of men and women re-offending. The bill, among other things, emphasizes treatment over incarceration for eligible offenders, allowing for house arrest and ankle bracelets.
• More progress toward realizing the governor’s goal of expanding broadband and cell coverage service to “the last mile” in Vermont by 2013. To that end, lawmakers passed a telecom bill that creates the framework to deliver broadband and cell service throughout the state by making investments to build out fiber optics lines and wireless networks as well as expediting the regulatory process.
• Progress toward expanding pre-kindergarten education, with the passage of a bill that will lift the cap on pre-K enrollees statewide.
• A jobs bill that according to Shumlin, expands the ability of emerging enterprises and businesses to access capital and credit when they need it, including a focus on expanding the EB-5 program and lowering the capital requirement for merchant banking. The EB-5 program gives foreign nationals the opportunity to access work visas if they invest money in the United States for job creation.
The jobs bill also features more than $1 million to support the agricultural economy.
• Expansion of Vermont’s net metering program, through which local renewable energy projects can contribute power to the state’s electricity grid.
• A bill that strengthens Vermont’s driving under the influence law. The law increases prevention measures and toughens penalties for chronic offenders and those who are highly intoxicated.
• A public records bill that Shumlin believes will increase transparency in Vermont government and give teeth to existing sunshine laws. The bill orders judges to grant attorney fees to those who are wrongly denied access to records.
LAWMAKERS SUM UP
Local House and Senate members were pleased not only with the results of this year’s session but also with the process.
“It was a quiet legislative session; there wasn’t the in-fighting that has existed in the past,” said Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport. “Perhaps it was because there was no money.
“But it was a great session, as I look back,” he added. “I think Vermonters got their money’s worth out of us.”
This was the 25th legislative session for Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury.
“It was very productive; we worked well together,” she said. “We got out earlier than I can remember. There was good leadership and people worked very hard.”
Nuovo was particularly pleased the Legislature passed a health care bill, and said she hopes other states follow Vermont’s lead.
“It is a really momentous occasion,” she said. Nuovo also applauded the jobs bill, the energy bill and ongoing progress toward extending broadband and cell phone coverage throughout the state.
Along with its budget work, Sharpe commended the General Assembly for passing bills that regulate the sale of propane. The legislation stipulates, among other things, that propane dealers cannot charge minimum use fees and must sell product to customers who own their own tanks — provided those tanks meet safety standards.
“Hopefully this will pry the industry open to more competition,” Sharpe said.
As a member of the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, was pleased with advances the state was able to make in telecommunications policy.
“Everyone agrees that the future of telecommunication and commerce will depend on high-speed Internet,” said Ralston, founder of Middlebury-based Vermont Coffee Co.
Ralston was pleased to see the Legislature create a telecommunications plan that will allow the state to wisely absorb and deploy the millions of dollars in federal stimulus money that will help Vermont reach its broadband goal. He noted additional financing will come through the leasing of fiber optic cable within the expanded telecommunications network.
Ralston was pleased with how things went in his rookie year. He praised Nuovo and House leaders for helping him learn the ropes in Montpelier.
“There was no rancor and no animosity,” Ralston said. “People worked with each other more than against each other.”
That’s not to say there weren’t some philosophical differences over legislative priorities. Democrats enjoyed hefty numerical advantages in both the House and Senate, and hold the governor’s office.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, acknowledged a smoother legislative process than in past years, but he and many others in the GOP minority were not buying everything that the Democratic majority was offering — particularly on health care.
Smith remains concerned that the Legislature made too swift a commitment to a single-payer system before knowing enough of the ramifications. He said he is not pleased that details of the new system are to be fleshed out by the five-member Green Mountain Care Board.
“We do not know who is going to pay (for the system), who it covers and who the providers are going to be,” Smith said. “Those are big questions for me and Vermonters.”
IMPACT ON BUSINESS
He said that the new system hinges greatly on whether the state will be able to obtain waivers form the federal government. In the meantime, Smith believes there will be an atmosphere of uncertainly surrounding Vermont’s health care system, to the extent that businesses will be apprehensive about locating to the Green Mountain State. He is also concerned that this transition period could make physicians apprehensive about establishing practices in Vermont.
“We were told this would be a real economic driver for Vermont, and I am not sure about that,” Smith said.
Smith noted battles over other bills, including measures seeking to authorize marijuana dispensaries and give child care providers the authority to unionize.
Lawmakers are already looking ahead to next session, during which some more tough financial decisions will have to be made. And there will soon come a time when the state will notice the impacts of the cuts made this year.
“With these tough times in the economy, we continue to have to make tough cuts in human services side that will cost us in the long run,” Fisher said. “That’s a struggle.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.