The Home Stretch: Ending The Biennium

March 06, 2014

The Vermont Standard

By: Kurt Staudter

Once again our legislative leaders will set an arbitrary date to end the session that has little to no connection as to whether the work of the people is finished. They do this every year claiming that it costs so much for each week that they are in Montpelier; that it’s the “responsible” thing to do. The problem is that when the biennium ends it’s like a giant reset button has been pressed – In November there will be an election, and next January the lawmakers return to a blank slate. All the worthy bills before our friends and neighbors in the legislature that made it through the House, but not the Senate, die and start over. All the bills that made it through the Senate and not the House come to a similar ends. And don’t get me started on the hundreds of hours spent on bills that never make it out of committee. I don’t know when it happened, or where the belief began, but to say that the legislature will be done by the first week in May regardless of what gets left on the table is just plain stupid. Then there is the complaint by the party in power, currently the Democrats, that if the session were to go to June that the Republicans would use it against them in the coming campaign. Oh, so let me see if I understand this: Since the party in power keeps the legislature in session because important issues remain unresolved, the other party will call them irresponsible and wasteful of taxpayer money.

Now I’m all for how up close and personal our citizen legislature is, and it pleases me know no end to watch Zoey, my energetic Old English Sheepdog, run off my State Reps when they come for their once every two year visit during the silly season, but it makes me crazy to see them pack it in because the leadership says it’s over. We are so lucky to have state government so small that we all can have a personal relationship with our lawmakers. It worries me a little bit that the only staff they have is the Legislative Council, and that many lawmakers will tell you that “they get some of their best information from the lobbyists.” Yet, all in all, I believe that we have state government we can be proud of, and that in the end they craft well thought out laws.

All indicators point to the fact that the long awaited debate of our bold experiment in single payer healthcare will come to a head in the next session. Powerful forces are amassing their resources both for and against this first-in-the-nation effort. You can expect the campaign season to be filled with ads screaming doom and gloom, or nirvana. Then after the dust settles and the votes counted, we’ll send another crop of lawmakers under the golden dome to duke this one out. I have faith that our friends and neighbors will craft something that will be just, fair, and once and for all put an end to the crime against humanity of for-profit medicine. Vermont is the perfect Petri dish to work out the kinks of how to provide affordable, quality healthcare to the citizens of a nation. It is high time we send the health insurance companies the same way we sent wagon wheel manufacturers and Kodak film.

The problem we face in January 2015 will be that not only is there the historic healthcare debate, but all the regular work that comes with the start of the session. There will be the unfinished work from this biennium along with all the new issues that need to be addressed. There will be the unexpected departmental financial woes that crop up while the lawmakers are away, and who knows what calamity Mother Nature will throw our way now that we’ve ticked her off with our global warming. Any way you look at it, our lawmakers start each session with a full plate piled high, and unfortunately there are important things that fall off.

In order to deal with the onslaught of work both anticipated and unforeseen, I urge the leadership in the House and Senate to continue working this year finishing up as much work as possible. This would hopefully free up the new legislature in January to hit the ground running. The work of the next legislature should be focused on the issues at hand, and to postpone discussion of single payer healthcare. Taking healthcare off the table should free up the lawmakers to conclude the session quickly. Then I would urge Governor Shumlin to call a special session of the legislature for the single purpose of crafting the groundbreaking healthcare legislation. This would give Vermonters the ability to focus on the debate while at the same time keep an eye on the outside forces that will undoubtedly descend on our lawmakers in force.

I believe that this plan should be telegraphed to all potential lawmakers in advance. For many who make the January through April sacrifice, it might be too much time away from other obligations for them to take part in a special session. However, this healthcare reform effort is perhaps the most important piece of legislation of this generation. It shouldn’t get screwed up because we didn’t take the time to do it right.

Contact Kurt Staudter at staudter@sover.net.