Some say protest hurt single payer cause

January 15, 2015

Rutland Herald: MONTPELIER — A sentiment is brewing inside the State House that protests staged there this week may have hurt the cause they were hoping to boost.

The Vermont Workers’ Center organized protests Thursday during the inaugural ceremony for Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. Hundreds of supporters of a single-payer health care system sang, chanted and disrupted proceedings during the afternoon before staging a House chamber sit-in that ended with the arrest of 29 people.

Anger and disappointment has been brewing since Shumlin announced Dec. 17 that he was shelving his effort to implement a universal, publicly financed health care system — for now, at least, because it is too costly for the state to implement. A report from the Shumlin administration stated that such a system would require an 11.5 percent payroll tax on all Vermont businesses and up to a 9.5 percent income tax on individuals.

Many, including those at the Vermont Workers’ Center, say the effort should move forward. The protesters Thursday said their goal was to secure a commitment from House Speaker Shap Smith for a public hearing on the administration’s report.

Hearings are scheduled in some legislative committees, but the speaker made no promise of any further hearings.

Shumlin, in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau, said he was upset with the demonstration and the disrespect shown by the protesters.

“It really saddened me. It really saddened me for this reason,” he said. “Listen, I share the frustration. There’s no one that wants to move to a publicly financed system more than I do, and, as you’ll see next week, we’re going to continue to push ahead with health care reform with great vigor in this state and it’s going to take some bold decisions to get it done.”

The governor added, “Having said that, I don’t care what your point of view is on an issue or what your politics are or what your party is, there’s a certain dignity and civility to the way we do things in Vermont.”

A publicly financed health care system has little chance of progressing during this legislative session. Leaders in the House and Senate have expressed little desire to advance a financing plan. Shumlin said the display from the protesters could set the effort back in the future.

“The inauguration is an opportunity where we all say, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves, cut out all this party stuff and get to work,’” the governor said. “And I just don’t think that they did their cause — my cause, universal health care, their cause, universal health care — much good by the kind of tactics they employed that had absolutely no respect for civility and the way we do things in the state.”

Lawmakers typically sympathetic to the Vermont Workers’ Center’s desire for a public health care system expressed similar sentiments, including Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Progressive from Washington County.

“In general, I would say that I was disappointed,” he said. “I don’t think their strategy was necessarily best for the particular day.”

Pollina said he understands the anger and frustration of the protesters, and the protests did not change his mind about the need for a public health system. He also said that after a cooling-off period, most lawmakers are likely to move on and there will be no lingering effect or derailing of future discussions within the Legislature about a publicly financed health care system.

Another single-payer proponent, Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, was even more dissatisfied.

“I’ve been actively supporting single payer since 1988, when I first ran for the state Senate,” he said. “I was outraged at the behavior of the protesters.”

Lawmakers have been duly elected by voters and had gathered to begin their work, McCormack said, and he was angry with the protesters because “no one appointed them to speak for the people.”

“The protesters deliberately disrupted the orderliness of those deliberations,” he said. “Now, to their credit, they did not come in with guns, they came in with signs and chants.”

McCormack said he hopes the incident will not have any lingering effect.

“I find our process more frustrating than they do, because I work with it and I’ve been working with it for 25 years,” he said. “The fact is, it is the process by which we the people govern ourselves, so they seriously discredited themselves. And, as what often happens with people who behave badly, it discredits the effort.”

James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, said Thursday that the protesters did not intend to interrupt any of the ceremonial proceedings.

However, one protester clearly did. As the Rev. Robert Potter was trying to deliver the benediction, a man in the House balcony, identified as Ki Walker of Royalton, continued to sing over him. Haslam said that was not planned or intended.

A call to the Vermont Workers’ Center was not returned Saturday.