Shumlin says Legislature laid foundation for new jobs
MIDDLEBURY — Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday commended the 2012 Legislature for adopting initiatives he said place the state on a firm foundation for job creation, fiscal solvency and sustainable health care costs — in spite of the crippling effects of Tropical Storm Irene.
“Overall, in my judgment, (the 2012 session) was an extraordinary success,” Shumlin said during an interview with the Addison Independenton Tuesday. “We rebuilt better than the way Irene found us. The challenge was met, and we did a lot of things that are going to make a real difference in growing jobs.”
He explained that the challenge was extremely daunting as lawmakers converged on Montpelier this past January. With the economy still in flux, the tab for road, bridge and other repairs associated with Tropical Storm Irene was approaching $500 million. But thanks to better-than-anticipated state revenues and a major infusion of federal aid, state officials were able to make Irene repairs and craft what Shumlin described as a $1.3-billion General Fund budget, which represents a spending increase of around 5.4 percent.
Jeb Spaulding, Shumlin’s secretary of administration, said the actual increase is around 3.5 percent, when one considers cuts in federal Medicaid subsidies (that the state must now cover) and some Irene-related expenses.
The budget, Shumlin noted, does not include an increase in broad-based taxes.
That’s a good thing, as most Vermonters are not in a position to absorb tax increases, Shumlin noted.
“Vermonters, on average, are making the same money they were making 10 years ago,” he said.
That said, Shumlin praised lawmakers for taking steps he said will improve the state economy and create new job opportunities in the years to come. He cited such specific examples as:
• A “health benefit exchange bill” that will provide qualified health benefit plans to uninsured and under-insured Vermonters beginning on Jan. 1, 2014. The health benefit exchange is required under the federal Affordable Care Act, which is currently facing scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Shumlin said the health benefits exchange will help slow the rate of growth of insurance costs, thereby helping consumers and business that share in the costs of health care deductibles.
“Health care costs are killing businesses,” Shumlin said. “The costs are rising quicker than we can sustain.”
He said the projected health care increases will cost the average Vermont family $10,000 for every year that rate of increase is not contained.
“This thing is such a jobs killer and is kicking the teeth of the middle class, who are struggling to pay their bills. There is no bigger challenge that we have.”
He said that assuming the Supreme Court does not make wholesale changes to the Affordable Care Act, Vermont will be receiving $400 million to help implement its health benefits exchange. With or without federal assistance, Shumlin said the state will have to do something to revamp its health care system.
That can be accomplished, in part, through boosting technology to modernize medical records sharing between patients’ physicians and by moving toward a care system that rewards providers more on patients outcomes than based on the number of procedures they perform, according to Shumlin.
• Extending broadband, high-speed Internet access to all corners of the state by the end of 2013. That accomplishment, Shumlin said, will create new business opportunities in rural areas.
• A new law that will allow the governor to appoint the secretary of education. The Vermont Board of Education has historically made that appointment. Shumlin said that by making it a gubernatorial appointment and elevating the secretary to a member of the governor’s cabinet will increase the accountability of both the secretary and the administration on education policy and outcomes.
“That’s huge,” Shumlin said.
• Passage of a “Working Landscapes” program, funded at $1.2 million, that Shumlin predicts will lead to a “renaissance” in Vermont’s agricultural industry. The program will include a Working Lands Enterprise Fund, overseen by a single board, that will be tapped to help entrepreneurs develop new forest and farm products. The money will be available for packaging centers and other initiatives.
• An energy bill that promotes more renewable energy jobs.
Other highlights of the 2012 session, according to Shumlin, included development of a successful plan to rebuild the state office complex in Waterbury; reorganization and rebuilding of Vermont’s mental health system into one that is less centralized and more community based; imposition of a moratorium on the ‘Cloud Tax’ on internet-based services to help Vermont companies that rely on that delivery system.
The governor did cite a few disappointments.
Among them was the House and Senate’s inability to come together on a prescription drug database bill that Shumlin said would have given a small contingent (four) of Vermont State Police investigators access to a Department of Health database charting prescription drug users. The bill sought to give VSP investigators access to information on the database that could be helpful in narcotics-related cases; as it stands, police have to contact multiple pharmacies in an effort to track a suspect’s drug purchases. Supporters argued access to the DOH database would make investigations quicker and more efficient. Opponents in the House maintained police should follow standard procedure by obtaining a search warrant before gaining access to the data bank. In the end, the bill failed to pass based on some lawmakers’ concerns about potential disclosure of patients’ personal medical information.
Shumlin argued the investigators would not have sought to look at the database, but simply learn the pharmacies at which a suspect purchased narcotic painkillers.
“It is ravaging our communities and it is killing kids and it is driving crime,” Shumlin said of prescription painkiller abuse.
The governor said he would have also liked to have seen lawmakers approve:
• So-called “dual enrollment” legislation that would have allowed eligible students to tap Vermont’s education fund for money to take college classes while still in high school.
“That is a real loss; we have to go back and get that next year,” Shumlin said.
• Environmental permitting reform.
“All we were saying is that when you appeal to the Environmental Court, you don’t have to go on the record and start from scratch,” Shumlin said, noting that such cases are currently heard “de novo” by the court, thus adding more time and expense to proceedings.
“I believe the environmental lawyers who make money on long cases killed that bill,” Shumlin said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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