Limbo Time at the Statehouse

                                                        by Hamilton E. Davis

      Town meeting week is usually a brief respite in the headlong scramble by the Vermont legislature to get the peoples’ business completed by late April or early May. Legislators go home to attend their meetings and to assess where their constituents stand on pressing issues; advocates and the press get a short break. The kids are out of school for the week. The occasional footsteps echo in the marble hallways.
   This year, however, seems somehow different. State government appears to be stuck in a strange limbo, a lingering hangover from last November’s unusual election that recast the state’s policy and political landscape. Peter Shumlin, a third-term Democratic governor in a very blue state, seems to have no traction at all. The state budget is in deficit, and no one seems to have a very clear idea what to do about it. Single payer health care reform, the governor’s signature issue for the last four years, is dead in the water.
   Real leadership is in perilously short supply. The Governor says repeatedly that he is “open to new ideas”, which ends up sounding like, “Somebody please throw me a rope.” Shap Smith, the powerful Speaker of the House, has so far at apparently declined to issue his committees any clear directions on where to go. Smith, a Democrat, and the Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, have begun to position themselves for the 2016 state election, but neither has said enough to provide a hint on where the state might go.
  Two of the most critical players at the committee level—Janet Ancel, chair of House Ways and Means, and Tim Ashe, chair of Senate Finance—are still holding their fire on both the budget and health reform dilemmas. The health care committees in both chambers are still in the very early stages of figuring out where to go on reform…
   In short, the whole 180-member body seems be drifting, with nearly half the session gone. The health care committees have just four working days left to “crossover”, the point at which a bill originating in one chamber needs to go the other. The money committees have just eight days left to cross over. These deadlines can be slipped, but it only makes sense to do that if there is real movement toward a consensus. No such consensus is visible yet.
   There are some glimmers of light. One of the most important is that Peter Shumlin seems to be running hard. He isn’t yet getting very far, but he is not mailing it in. There is no way to tell what or how long it will take him to regain the mojo that took him through his first three years, but he at least seems to be fully engaged.
   There are some indications that one of the most corrosive of the failures in managing health care reform—the failure of Shumlin’s office to adequately manage and coordinate the operations of their own office, the Obamacare Exchange, and the Green Mountain Care Board—may be easing.
   Moreover, there is some movement toward new thinking and initiatives on the financing side of the single payer program.
   It is also true, however, that these glimmers of light will remain just glimmers for the remainder of the current legislative session. The administration and the legislature will have to patch together some kind of fix for the budget deficit. But health care reform is probably far too complex for the legislature to master in the time left this year.
   All of which points to the 2016 session as the first real chance to determine where the state will go politically, financially and policy wise, especially on health care.
   Over the next week or so, I’ll revisit these issues in detail. First up, the politics, always the father of public policy; then health care. On the budget, I have no idea what will happen, but I am comforted by the belief that nobody else does either.