A Matter of Style

by Hamilton E. Davis

  Vermonters are now four months past the last election, but the political waters are just as roiled and murky as they were after last November’s voting. And because politics ultimately beget policy, both the administration of Peter Shumlin and the Legislature are still adrift, with nearly half the 2015 session gone.
   As we pointed out recently the health care committees have just four working days left to crossover, the point at which bills passed by one body are supposed to go the other chamber. The money committees have just eight working days to get bills to the other side. There is no clear direction yet on such vital questions as how to handle a very tough budget deficit, or how to deal with the financing side of health care reform.
   The key factor in the current situation has been the inability of Governor Peter Shumlin to reestablish his leadership standing in the statehouse. Shumlin’s political aura was shattered by last November’s election, which he won by the narrowest of margins, and by his decision to abandon his signature single-payer health care  initiative.
   Hard evidence of the damage was the poll taken in mid February that Shumlin’s favorability rating has dropped into negative territory for the first time in his four-year tenure. The poll by the Castleton Polling Institute showed that 41 percent of Vermonters approve of the governor’s performance, while 47 disapprove, a striking drop from his position when he destroyed his political opponent in the 2012 election. An important piece of collateral damage was the fact 67 percent of the public approve of Shumlin’s dropping single payer; in the early days of the project, the public favored the single payer project.
   There is no question that Shumlin got the message the voters sent in November. It is also clear that he has not yet been able to repair the damage. He has tried, but it hasn’t worked—at least, not yet. A major step was his proposal when he began his term in January to levy a 0.7 percent payroll tax to increase Medicaid payments, and thereby reduce insurance premiums for commercial payers. A minor piece of that might pass, but there appears to be little support for the whole thing, which itself is a tiny fraction of his original healthy reform project.
   As for the budget, Shumlin has proposed some cuts, but his recommendations seem to carry no special weight with lawmakers. They are casting all over the place to find things to cut: both Republicans and Democrats have held private gatherings just to brainstorm pieces of government they can just throw overboard. A list of the suggestions is now listed on the Joint Fiscal Office’s website.
   Various state commissions, dump ‘em. Close high cost state parks. Cut pay for state workers. Cut travel time for judges. Cut the operating budget at the Exchange. Lay off some game wardens. Eliminate funding for the humanities, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Council on the Arts, the state historical society. Kill the Travel and Tourism department…cut House seats from 150 to 120. Cut House seats?
   A common element is that the whole mess doesn’t amount to that much money; it’s just nibbling around the edges. The broader issue is that there is no overarching, coherent plan to solve the problem.
   Old timers at the statehouse recall a similar set of circumstances in 1991 when the late Governor Richard Snelling, a Republican, was seen one day striding past the cafeteria to Speaker Ralph Wright’s office. Wright, a Democrat, and Snelling had jousted for years.
   Snelling proposed to Wright that they both support a major tax increase as a way to eliminate a deficit, with the tax to sunset once state finances had recovered. The deal also involved cuts in state government. The agreement was striking because it was so unexpected, because it was so bipartisan, and because it was a perfect example of political power brought to bear in a way that benefited the whole state.
   There is no such nexus of power now.
   Part of the problem may be a matter of Shumlin’s political style, a subject of interest for several years. As the leader of the Senate, Shumlin was always a major player in the statehouse. He did not quite dominate it, but he was never less than one of a handful of key players. A master of the political maneuver.
   A consistent question was whether Shumlin could make that style work as the state’s chief executive, or whether he would, or could, change it. He managed very well in his first two years, but his style has fallen short in his second two. You can see the two impulses—a serious assessment of state realities, offset by the same kind of shallow, “happy talk” that marked his Senate tenure—in one of his new efforts to rebuild his political standing.
   In January he began issuing so-called Op Ed articles every week. Written by Scott Coriell, his press secretary,  in close collaboration with the governor, they aim to provide a regular overview of where state government is going.
   A few weeks ago, his weekly article contained a somber, realistic look at where we are now. The state budgets have been built on the assumption that spending could sustainably rise by five percent per year, he wrote. The assumption was based on projections by professional economists.
   They were wrong, however, Shumlin said. The reality is that budget growth cannot much exceed three percent. Now, he continued, we have to rebuild state spending to comport with the new, much lower ceiling. Sounded like he was channeling Dick Snelling and Ralph Wright.
   But there hasn’t been any compelling follow up. What we have is just a collection of proposed nibbles around the edges. And his most recent article was pure happy talk. The Legislature is doing just a magnificent job under his leadership, he wrote.     They are going to clean up Lake Champlain (they’re not); solve the property tax/education financing conundrum (unlikely); solve the cost shift problem in health care financing (no chance); build the economy and generate more jobs (possible, but that will be driven by national conditions).  
   One way or another, a budget will get built and adopted, although it won’t be pretty. But the Shumlin leadership style remains problematic, and his political standing uncertain. He is working much harder, but he still seems like a lame duck. No one knows whether he will run again in 2016, let alone whether he could defeat the putative Republican candidate,  Lt. Gov.Phil Scott.
   And when it comes to issues, running –and winning in 2016—happy talk won’t be enough. Cleaning up the lake, shifting to a three percent inflation track in state spending, recasting the education system, and especially, reforming the health care delivery system, will be a hard grind for five years or more.
   The ridiculous happy talk simply has to go away, because no one who doesn’t have his head under water believes it. I ran into a member of the House Health Committee the other day who was contrasting the feelings on the committee about the credibility of Governor Shumlin and Al Gobeille, the chair of the Green Mountain Care Board. If the governor and Gobeille presented differing positions on health care reform to the committee, the vote would be 11 to 0 in favor of Gobeille, the member said. 
   That pretty much sums up the governor’s leadership problem. He has to rebuild his governing style or continue to drift into irrelevance. I think he could do that. Shumlin still has the implicit advantage of a weak Republican opposition, whose current success rests pretty much entirely on opposition to him.
   Does he want to? I don’t have a clue.
   N.B. The question resonates most clearly on the toughest challenge Shumlin faces—health care reform. I’ll look at that next.