What’s in store for the Future of Vermont?
As Governor Peter Shumlin entered the House Chamber on Wednesday to give his farewell address to the General Assembly, he shook hands with the many legislators he worked with over the last 6 years as Governor and even longer as State Senator. He gave accolades to his “5th Floor Team” for all their dedication, hard work and ability to put up with his very demanding nature. Shumlin spoke proudly of Vermont passing laws to allow marriage equality, death with dignity, and attempted to tout the success of Vermont Health connect despite its controversial struggles.
Only twenty-four hours later, Governor-Elect Phil Scott entered the State House to find a standing room only situation in every hallway and various public areas; many were anxious to see Scott be sworn in as Vermont’s 82nd Governor. Also in attendance were former Governors Madeleine Kunin, Howard Dean, James Douglas, and Peter Shumlin, as well as many other dignitaries.
During the Inaugural Speech Governor Scottasked all legislators to join him and “hold ourselves accountable to restore Vermonters’ trust in government.” He added, “Doing things the way we’ve always done them and hoping for a different result will not bring about change.”
By the end of the day, the 82nd Governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, was sworn into office as well as Lt. Governor David Zuckerman, State Treasurer Beth Pearce, Attorney General TJ Donovan, Secretary of State James Condos, and State Auditor Doug Hoffer. The tone and tenure of the first days of the Legislative session were of excitement and a renewed faith that with a new Governor and Legislative Leaders, Vermont is going to get back on track.
Governor Scott has spent the past month working to identify and recruit more than 65 leaders to fill jobs as Agency Secretaries and many department heads as Commissioners. Scott has been clear on the qualifications of the four C’s: character, competency, calling and chemistry. Perhaps that criteria is what made filling those jobs within the Administration a difficult task for the Scott Transition Team. Most who know Phil Scott could certainly associate the 4 C’s to Phil himself.
What’s in store for the Senate? Lt. Governor David Zuckerman is now the first Progressive/Democrat to obtain a seat in higher office, but with that comes opportunity with a lot at risk. Democrats may not be so quick to re-elect Zuckerman if he does not run the office and Preside over the Senate as a consensus builder and Statesman. The lieutenant governorship is an office that has its responsibilities — presiding over the Senate, casting tie-breaking votes, and determining committee assignments as a member of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Committees. The Lt. Governor is also the person appointed to take over if the Governor dies or is unable to serve. In addition, when the Governor is out of state, the Lt. Governor takes over the top job during their absence.
The new Speaker of the House, Mitzi Johnson-D Grand Isle-Chittenden, was elected and committee assignments were handed out. Many of the veteran lawmakers were displaced and in disbelief of the shake up within the committee assignments. If asked, Speaker Johnson might say she was spreading out the knowledge and expertise in the assignments so that committees could hit the ground running. Johnson would also say that passing legislation is not top on her list. Examining what has already been passed, operationally if the programs are working, and where can Vermont do better, are all in the forefront. With that came new committees: natural resources moved in with fish & wildlife, mental health was moved from human services to health care, and a new Energy & Technology Committee was formed. These changes, without a doubt, gestured priorities of the new Speaker.
Senator Tim Ashe (D/P)- Chittenden District was handily elected to serve as President Pro Tempe. Ashe has served as the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee and served on the Judiciary Committee. This experience prepares him for the upcoming budget challenges and negotiation with the House and Governor Scott. Negotiating, a skill that is second nature to Ashe. By the end of the first week, the Senate Committee assignments had been announced. With that, the overall feeling in the building was the assignments were predictable. Senator Ann Cummings-D, Washington District will take over as Chair of the Finance Committee. All other Committee Chairs remained the same as last year.
The vision of what really lie ahead for the new General Assembly and the Scott Administration may differ. Scott has vowed to focus on Vermont’s economy and affordability. The General Assembly has already signaled interest in the legalization of recreational marijuana, paid family leave, and clean water funding. The Advocates state that paid leave, family leave, increases in the minimum wage, and other proposals will make Vermont more affordable and put more money into the economy. The business community says with the $400 million in increased taxes, fees, and employee benefits over the last 6 years, they need time to breathe and absorb the additional costs.
The current budget has a $70+ million budget gap and the newly elected Governor has been clear he will not tolerate any tax increases. The question is how soon will the General Assembly test that assertion with a stand-alone tax or fee and send a bill to his desk? This exercise will set the tone and tempo for the next five months.
The emerging economic policies of the incoming Trump Administration have potential to be the most significant factor affecting the current economy for many sectors including health care, transportation, manufacturing, construction, and overall growth in the economy. Uncertainty constrains economic growth and the addition of jobs. Vermont relies on $2 billion in federal funding each year. How will this change under the new Administration?
With 15% of the Vermont population over the age of 65, overall discretionary spending will continue to decline. One of Vermont’s long-term problems is the rapidly aging population compared to decline in births and the younger population moving out of the state.
How will the Trump Administration help the Scott Administration with Medicaid funding going forward, currently $1.69 billion annually? Will the current proposal for an All-Payer Model for health care reimbursements adopted by the Shumlin Administration ever come to fruition? Will the health insurance exchange, Obamacare, be repealed?
The questions continue. Will the Environmental Protection Agency follow through on the threat to improve Vermont’s water quality if Vermont doesn’t raise $68 million annually for the next 20 years? Will that be adequate or even measurable?
The unknown will make the work on budgets that much more difficult and could result in a longer Legislative session than the traditional eighteen weeks.