Teachers' Pet: The Vermont-NEA Polishes An Apple For Single Payer

February 26, 2014

Seven Days

by Paul Heintz @paulheintz

Nearly two months into the legislative session, the scene at the Statehouse remains unusually slow.

It's the calm before the storm.

Next spring, if Gov. Peter Shumlin gets his way, the legislature will vote on a historic, expensive and politically perilous bill to finance the governor's long-sought goal of providing universal health insurance.

But to get there from here, he'll need a legislature that has his back. That's why the state's biggest union — the Vermont-National Education Association — pledged last week to reinvigorate a dormant political advocacy group called Vermont Leads.

"Vermonters already support the creation of Green Mountain Care," says Vermont-NEA spokesman Darren Allen. "Our goal is to let lawmakers and the governor know there's support for what they're doing."

They might need to hear it. After last fall's rocky rollout of Vermont Health Connect — a byproduct of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare — some lawmakers may be hesitant to follow through on yet another major health care overhaul.

"I'm concerned that there's not as much support for this as you might hope, but it's still early in the discussion," says Peter Sterling, a veteran health care activist who recently resumed his duties as executive director of Vermont Leads. "My biggest worry is that the entire discussion becomes about a tax bill, as opposed to, 'What does this tax bill do for Vermonters?'"

Along with losing the faith, Vermont Democrats could also lose some seats this November. The long-moribund Vermont Republican Party appears intent on recruiting better legislative candidates than usual, earlier than usual. State GOP political director Brent Burns says the party's already signed up six challengers to run for the Senate — including former party chairwoman Pat McDonald in Washington County and 2012 runner-up Dustin Degree in Franklin County — and 22 for the House.

"For the financing plan to be passed in the next legislature, [Democrats] have to hold their ground or increase their majorities — and that is severely under threat," says Vermonters for Health Care Freedom founder Darcie Johnston, a staunch opponent of single-payer. "That's why you're seeing these big, out-of-state unions step up to protect this agenda."

In fact, those unions haven't ponied up all that much — at least, not yet. As Vermont Public Radio's Peter Hirschfeld first reported last week, the Vermont-NEA's parent organization dropped just $80,000 to fund Vermont Leads for the next six months. It also paid $35,000 for a poll to gauge popular support for single-payer.

But that might just be the tip of the iceberg.

"We fully expect other groups will lend their support to this effort," Allen says, adding that his organization has had "conversations" with other unions about funding the effort.

One hint could be the recent addition of George Lovell to Vermont Leads' board. Lovell serves as Vermont coordinator for AFCSME Council 93, which won an election last summer to represent more than 7,000 home-care workers. In September, he was elected president of the Vermont AFL-CIO.

Lovell says it's "too early to comment" on whether AFSCME or the AFL-CIO will invest in Vermont Leads this election cycle. But, he says, "I can tell you there's lots of support."

Ironically, it was AFSCME's unsuccessful opponent in the race to represent home-care workers, the Service Employees International Union, that actually founded Vermont Leads.

As it geared up in the summer of 2012 to fight for legislation allowing those workers to organize in Vermont, the out-of-state SEIU created the group to curry favor with local lawmakers. It spent more than $100,000 on pro-single-payer advertising that summer and another $50,000 that fall supporting candidates through an affiliated political action committee. After the SEIU lost its organizing bid, the union left the state and Vermont Leads went dark.

Sterling says he expects Vermont Leads to relanch its PAC, which could operate as an independent, expenditure-only "super PAC," as it did last year, allowing it to raise unlimited sums from a single source.

That could turn out to be a very big deal if Democrats and Progressives face more than token opposition this fall. Or if deep-pocketed single-payer opponents — such as Burlington mega-donor Lenore Broughton or out-of-state business groups — try to stop Vermont before it becomes a national example.

If the unions save the day, you can bet they won't let their friends in the Statehouse forget it.