Eric Davis: Lawmakers earn middling grades

The 2014 session of the Vermont Legislature ended last Saturday evening. How should the session be judged?
From Gov. Shumlin’s perspective, the session should be considered a success. Unlike in 2013. there were few disagreements between the governor and the Democratic legislative majority on the budget. The budget as passed reflected the governor’s priorities: slight increases in spending on education, environmental and human services programs, and more dollars and more attention directed toward the problem of drug addiction in Vermont.
On two important policy issues — minimum wage and health care reform — the bills finally passed were much closer to the governor’s position than to that of the House Democratic majority. The minimum hourly wage will increase from the current $8.73 to $10.50 over a four-year period, much as the governor recommended, rather than have the increase front-loaded in the first year, as the House Democrats wanted.
The final health care bill did not include any of the firm deadlines regarding financing and administration of a single-payer system that House Democrats included in their earlier versions of that bill. The governor continues to have flexibility to develop health care reform on his timetable, even though many single-payer advocates are increasingly concerned that the administration’s commitment to roll out a universal, publicly financed health care program in 2017 may be slipping.
Organized labor, which is an important part of the House Democrats’ base, saw mixed results from the 2014 session. Private childcare providers were given the right to organize to negotiate their state subsidies, but the minimum wage was not increased as fast or as high as labor wanted. Nor did the Legislature pass two other key union priorities, a prevailing wage bill for state contractors, or paid sick leave of up to one week for all employees.
A bill requiring manufacturers of food products made with genetically modified organisms to label their products was passed and signed by the governor, but this legislation faces an almost-certain court challenge from the multinational food industry. A prohibition on using hand-held electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle did pass, even though the governor had reservations about the bill and a small number of senators tried to bottle the legislation up in committee at the end of the session.
The Legislature ended up doing almost nothing in response to the challenges of funding K-12 education, in spite of a large number of school budgets being defeated on Town Meeting Day. The House’s plan to force small school districts to consolidate was replaced by the Senate with incentives for voluntary consolidation, but on the final day of the session even this bill could not receive the necessary votes in the House to overcome procedural obstacles.
The House’s plans to phase out small school grants and to move from a property tax to an income tax-based education finance system both received little support in the Senate. Senators, who are elected from county-wide constituencies, appear much more responsive to the concerns of small-town school districts than do House members, more of whom represent larger towns and cities.
Finally, although the Legislature did pass a balanced budget for 2014-15, state budget-writers will continue to face long-term challenges. Federal grants are projected to decline in the years ahead, especially if Republicans have a majority in the U.S. Senate as well as the U.S. House after this fall’s elections. And state revenues are growing at about the rate of the economy as a whole — between 2.5 and 3 percent annually — while state spending continues to increase at a rate closer to 4 percent a year.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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