by Hamilton E. Davis
The health reform effort in Vermont has been moving more or less steadily ahead for the last six years, but I sometimes wonder how it survives, given the political follies it has to surmount. The latest case in point—the fiasco surrounding the appointment of Robin Lunge to the Green Mountain Care Board.
Lunge was appointed to the Board late last year by then-governor Pete Shumlin and has been serving on the supposedly five-member Board since then. When the state Senate prepared to take up her confirmation recently, however, they couldn’t find the necessary paperwork.
The Scott administration jumped on this glitch immediately; the rules allow for interim appointments, but such appointments vanish if the Senate adjourns in the following session without a confirmation vote. No paper work, no vote. Sorry about that, the Scotties said, but the governor would just have to start the appointment process over again.
The effect of such a development would mean that Scott would be able to essentially build an entirely new Green Mountain Care Board to oversee a reform that he has shown absolutely no interest in and to which Scott’s staff, if not Scott himself, may be actively hostile to (more about this later). There are already two vacancies on the five-member Board—one of those is the Chair--and Scott can fill those positions any time he gets around to it. The Lunge seat, if vacated, would make that three and control. And board member Con Hogan’s term expires in September. The Hogan seat would make four Scott appointments.
Nobody contends that Lunge is not extremely well qualified for the Board seat, nor that Shumlin had the right to appoint her, nor that he clearly intended to do so. But rules are the rules, the Scotties said. Sad.
This construct began to unravel yesterday at Governor Phil Scott’s press conference, convened to tout his accomplishments in his first 100 days in office. The press corps, most of which ignores the substance of health care reform like it was a mutant form of quantum physics, tore into Scott on the Lunge issue. Pete Hirschfeld of Vermont Public Radio, Kyle Midura of WCAX, and Erin Mansfield of Vt. Digger led the inquisition, grilling Scott relentlessly. Didn’t he think she was qualified? Wasn’t it obvious that Shumlin intended to appoint her? What if the Senate just went ahead and voted to confirm her anyway?
Scott in his aw shucks way just shook it off. “I just think it’s important that we follow the process,” he said. And that seemed to be that. Left to lawyers, there didn’t appear to leave any route to saving Lunge in the seat. That was certainly the position of Scott’s chief of staff Jason Gibbs and his lawyer, Jaye Pershing Johnson.
The Vermont state house, however, is essentially a political rather than legal place and by afternoon the Scotties dream of mastery over health care reform began to go glimmering.
Sen. Claire Ayer, chair of Health and Welfare told Terri Hallenbeck of Seven Days that the Senate would vote on the Lunge appointment, paperwork or not. And it then became clear that the frontal assault by an apparently united press corps had borne more fruit than it had appeared at the time.
A question late in the Scott inquisition was whether Scott would accept a decision by the Senate to confirm Lunge, and he said he would. Voila. Ayer clearly had the support of the Senate leadership, particularly Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and Judiciary chair Dick Sears. So, we can expect the Senate to vote on Lunge and if so, she will be confirmed by a large vote.
The contretemps over the Lunge appointment seemed to me to illustrate an interesting characteristic of the Scott administration’s political personality. When Scott was slogging through his back-and-forth with the press, he said at one point that he didn’t want the Lunge seat to become a “partisan political” one.
I, for one, believed him. I don’t think he cares one way or another whether Robin Lunge sits on the Green Mountain Care Board. He’s not a hard-edged political guy at all, which may be why the voters like him so much. But here is what I think is interesting:
His staff is hard-edged as hell. They care deeply about winning these kinds of political battles. And in the long run, it is the staff that could define the trajectory of the Scott years.
I am going to write more about the political implications of this. As far as health care reform is concerned, however, Scott still has control of the Board. He can already appoint two of the five members, including the chair. And he’ll get another appointment in September.
Scott’s real views on health care reform, though, remain obscure, and the Lunge seat follies didn’t change that fact at all.