Health care – exchange and single payer – dominate House Democrats’ caucus

December 15, 2013

VTDigger

The Democratic members of the Vermont House of Representatives met at the Statehouse Saturday for a taste of what’s to come during the second half of the two-year biennium.

Gov. Peter Shumlin told Democratic lawmakers to “plow the ground” for a single payer health care system this year and “take the criticism, take the bullets,” before tackling a financing mechanism in 2015. He asked them hold off on new tax proposals until then.

House Speaker Shap Smith, meanwhile, made the case for fiscal restraint, urging lawmakers to resist the temptation to open the state’s checkbook to fix its problems.

Both Shumlin and Smith called for improvements to the state’s education system, more treatment options for opiate addiction, and ongoing investments in renewable energy.

In a nod to the rejection of his incendiary proposal to reduce the state’s earned income tax credit (EITC) and his push to tax break-open tickets — both of which fell flat in the Legislature last session — the governor promised that he wouldn’t spring anything on lawmakers this year.

“We don’t have any big surprises for you,” he said. “That’s a promise. We’ll tell you in advance what we plan and what we want to do.”

During the final days of the last session, Shumlin butted heads with the Democratic legislative leadership over a tax proposal that would have capped deductions, slightly reducing the tax burden on Vermonters with modest incomes and raising them for roughly 14,000 taxpayers in upper income brackets.

“I know that there are days when we get into the heat of legislation and the differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch — or maybe just the differences between 180 legislators and this stubborn governor — where we have, you know, some tough points,” Shumlin told the Democratic representatives.

Shumlin won the tax battle. Since then, both Smith and Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell have shied away from their pledge to reform the tax system, citing concerns that lawmakers will be tempted to use it as a means to raise new revenues. Last year, the House proposed a cap on itemized deductions and a change in the income tax base. The state taxes residents on taxable income — after deductions. Most states tax adjusted gross income.

On Saturday, Shumlin said he didn’t want to antagonize lawmakers. “What we have to remember as we reflect is none of us are perfect, including me,” he said. “I learn from the mistakes, I really do, or I try to, and I want to find ways to work even more closely together.”

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, asked the governor why he opposed the tax reform proposal, and what could be done to make it more palatable to him.

Shumlin reiterated his stance that the proposal was not in fact revenue-neutral, as its architects had intended. (Shumlin had used 2007 tax data to argue the plan would increase tax revenues by $10 million. Lawmakers, working off 2010 data, contended that there would be no revenue change.) He asked lawmakers to hold off tinkering with the tax structure until 2015, when the financing plan for single payer will be developed.

Earlier Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, began to ask whether Shumlin would see single payer through to completion.

“I noticed you used the word universal health care in exchange for single payer. I’m curious …” Webb trailed off, and Shumlin jumped in to reassure her.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “If ever you hear the rumor, in this building or anywhere else, that your governor is backing down on his commitment to universal, single payer, publicly funded health care … come find me. I want to talk to them. It’s not true. This is my single goal of what I want to accomplish before Vermonters are finished with me.”

The governor did not discuss Vermont Health Connect and the problems that have plagued the state’s transition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), except to say they pointed to the need for single payer. After Shumlin left, lawmakers turned their attention to the exchange.

Lawmakers’ frustration with being on the front lines, fielding calls from confused constituents, was palpable.

Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, who chairs the House Health Care Committee, was besieged by questions from fellow legislators who, on behalf of their constituents, asked about problems small businesses and individuals had signing up for insurance.

After half an hour, Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, said lawmakers should stop attempting to perform the role of navigators who are trained by the Department of Vermont Health Access (DVHA) to assist with health care sign-ups.

“I think this is way beyond constituent services,” Lippert said. “This is not our role.” Others clapped in assent.

Smith urges fiscal restraint
The state is facing a $70 million budget gap for fiscal year 2015. Smith reassured lawmakers that the problem isn’t insurmountable. “That’s not new, and we keep solving it,” he told them. But he also implored them to suppress their reflex to solve problems by spending more. Smith has been publicly making this case since early November.

“We are going to be in a place this year where people are going to say over and over and over to us, ‘If we just put more money into it, it will get better,’” he said. “And you know what? Putting more money into things sometimes is the answer. But it isn’t always the answer. And it shouldn’t be the first answer that we always have at the tip of our tongue.”

That message likely won’t resonate with every Democratic representative. But while it may be an unpopular message to peddle, Smith has the advantage of entering the session in the good graces of his caucus. After his speech, Rep. Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury, presented him an engraved gavel as a gesture of their support.

Smith also challenged lawmakers with an ambitious goal — making Vermont’s school system the best in the world. And he stressed the urgency of addressing opiate addiction.

Shumlin, too, said he’d have proposals this session to address the “opiate epidemic.”

Mid-biennium member changes
Democrats said farewell to Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, who Shumlin appointed to the Public Service Board. They also noted the passing of Democrat Larry Townsend, who died in June. Shumlin appointed Kathy Hoyt, also a Democrat from Norwich, to replace Cheney, and Marjorie Ryerson, D-Randolph, to replace Townsend.

Those changes prompted a reshuffling of lawmakers’ committee assignments.

Smith appointed Hoyt to the House Health Care Committee, and bumped off a Republican, Rep. John Mitchell of Fairfax, further cementing the Democrats’ control of the committee. Prior to the switch, there were six Democrats, three Republicans, one Progressive and one independent.

The move has ruffled Republican feathers. House Minority Leader Don Turner told the Vermont Press Bureau’s Peter Hirschfeld that removing Mitchell will make it easier for Democrats to avoid asking “tough questions” about health care.

Mitchell will move to the House Education Committee, and Rep. Patti Lewis, R-Berlin, will be shifted to Government Operations. Ryerson will join the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.