As many reporters and pundits have noted, there are few essential differences between the five Democratic candidates in their views on the budget, health care, education, economic development, agriculture, human services, and energy and the environment.
But there are subtle and not-so-subtle policy nuances that might make the difference for voters who haven’t yet decided which name to check off on Tuesday: Susan Bartlett, Matt Dunne, Deb Markowitz, Doug Racine or Peter Shumlin.
We examined statements made by the candidates on specific issues and boiled them down to a paragraph. For readers who want to know more, we’ve included links to stories by reporters from the Associated Press and the Burlington Free Press. The information is derived from candidates’ campaign Web sites, news reports and forums.
Cheat sheet # 1 focuses on the budget, health care and education.
Whoever becomes governor faces a budget cliff: State tax revenues are expected to grow about $15 million next year. That growth won’t be enough to make up for a large gap between revenues and the cost of state government. For fiscal year 2012, the state is coming up $184 million short of the projected cost of government services: That figure includes the $112 million shortfall, plus $72 million in Phase 2 Challenges for Change savings that have yet to be fully identified in human services, education, state contracts and other areas. So far, phase 1 of the Challenges has yielded about $28 million in budget reductions, about $10 million less than the $38 million projected so far for fiscal year 2011.
The Douglas administration and the Legislature have already eliminated about 660 positions in state government and have asked the state workforce to take a pay cut of 3 percent; struck a deal in which teachers will wait longer to retire and contribute more than $15 million a year to the state retirement fund; and made significant cuts in mental health programs and Medicaid benefits.
Income tax revenue growth has dropped precipitously in the down economy as Vermonters have lost jobs, taken pay cuts and worked fewer hours. All five candidates have issued economic development plans that they say will shore up the state’s economy – and state revenues.
House Speaker Shap Smith told Vtdigger.org recently: “I don’t expect the gap can be made up through revenue growth. I think, quite frankly, this may be the most difficult budget year we face.”
So how will the five candidates solve the state’s budget woes? Here’s what we found:
Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chief budget writer for the Vermont Senate
Bartlett believes the state’s budget needs to be further reduced; she does not advocate for more taxes or using budget stabilization funds. She would apply Challenges for Change to all aspects of state government. Bartlett wants to reintegrate nonviolent prisoners into communities, which she says will save the state millions of dollars.
Matt Dunne, former state senator from Windsor County, now a community affairs executive for Google
Dunne would reevaluate the effectiveness of programs and transform state government through initiatives developed through better information sharing. He is an advocate for cloud computing
(Internet-based computing), which he believes would produce significant savings. He would cut public relations staff now working at agencies and departments across state government.
Secretary of State Deb Markowitz
Markowitz is critical of Challenges for Change. She often cites her office’s elimination of a division that microfilmed records as an example of how she would target reductions in state government. She says she will eliminate the $61 per diem meal allowance for the governor’s office, which would save $16,000.
Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee
Racine believes the state needs to find more efficiencies through technology, rather than cuts to services, tap into about half of the state’s $60 million budget stabilization fund (a.k.a. rainy day funds) and tax junk food or Internet sales to help make up for the budget gap. He would eliminate public relations staff.
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham
Shumlin believes the state can reap significant savings in health care costs by moving to a single payer health care system. He wants to reintegrate nonviolent prisoners into society and cut the Corrections budget by $40 million (the current budget is roughly $140 million).
Associated Press, “Candidates share ideas on balancing the state’s budget”
Burlington Free Press, “Democratic gubernatorial candidates outline views on five key topics”
Burlington Free Press, “Q and A, Round 11”
Vermonters are expected to spend $4.9 billion on health care next year. That expenditure is expected to grow by $1 billion in 2012. Though Congress enacted reforms this year that will be fully in effect in 2017, the five Democratic candidates say something has to be done right away to curb costs in Vermont. Their plans for getting there, however, vary.
Bartlett would focus on global budgeting, which would provide a set amount of funding each year for hospitals, according to her Web site, because “about 40 percent of Vermont insurance money goes to hospitals.” She says insurance companies would send the money for hospitals to the state, which would pay hospitals directly. She calls it “a major step toward” containing the costs of health care. “The measure is a sort of quasi-single-payer health-care system, where the state acts as a conduit between insurance companies and hospitals,” she wrote on her Web site.
Dunne is a proponent of a “self-insurance” plan for all Vermonters, similar to plans used by large corporations. A single insurance company would administer the plan. He would call for a redesign in “how we implement reimbursements so that businesses and individuals pay less and doctors are rewarded based on making people better.”
Markowitz would also implement a “self insurance” plan for all Vermonters and launch a pilot program to introduce standardized billing procedures for the largest hospitals and doctors’ groups. She supports the new federal health care reform “exchanges,” which will be available next year. She says the exchanges will “look just like Expedia or Orbitz, where consumers can choose the type of plan they want and see different options.”
Racine sponsored S.88, the health care bill that calls for a redesign of the state’s system. A consultant is currently developing three models for health care in Vermont: single-payer, public option and a third, yet-to-be determined, alternative system. The Legislature will decide which of the three design proposals the state might pursue.
Shumlin is a proponent of a government-administered, single-payer system. He believes such a system will control costs and save individuals, businesses and the state significant amounts of money. He says a single-payer system will be good for business because it will remove the burden of health care costs from their payrolls.
Burlington Free Press, “Health care and the governor’s race”
Vermont spends about $1.3 billion a year on K-12 education, according to the Vermont Transparency Web site. Our student to teacher ratio is 10 to 1 – the lowest in the nation. School boards across the state have been cutting budgets as student enrollment has declined, but enrollments are expected to drop even further, from 92,000 to 85,000 statewide, in the coming years. The Legislature passed a voluntary school district consolidation plan in the last session, in order to cut supervisory district administrative costs. Under Challenges for Change, school districts have been asked to find $23 million in savings, and the Department of Education has developed targets for each district in the state. Last year, schools cut their budgets by the same amount – by roughly 2 percent. The Douglas administration and Republican candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, have called for significant cuts in school personnel to reduce education spending and relieve the property tax burden on Vermonters.
All five of the Democratic candidates for governor support some form of supervisory district consolidation that would cut administrative costs. Here are the details:
Bartlett is calling for a reduction in the number of supervisory union districts from 62 to 16. “The path to getting to larger districts needs to be paved by finding all the best practices in administration and requiring all districts to implement these practices over a two-year time period,” she writes on her Web site. She also wants to see “a critical evaluation of special education” and thresholds set for minimum and maximum class sizes. She wants to “scrap the CLA (common level of appraisal system for property tax setting) in favor of a system with a statewide, three-year rotating professional appraisal.”
Dunne opposes mandatory school consolidation, though he says he would reduce the number of superintendents in the state by two-thirds. Dunne says he would encourage bulk buying across districts and distance learning via the Internet. He would eliminate the two-vote provision, which penalizes schools for spending more than 1 percent above inflation. He would also eliminate the Common Level of Appraisal and “move to a regularly scheduled appraisal system.”
Markowitz supports a reduction in the number of supervisory union districts, and she says she would provide incentives for local communities to decide whether to consolidate schools. “We must find innovative ways to lower education costs and find more effective and efficient ways of managing our schools, by consolidating purchasing and administration,” Markowitz says on her Web site.
Racine supports voluntary supervisory union consolidation to reduce administrative costs, and he said he is willing to explore any ideas for removing inefficiencies from the education funding system, as long the changes don’t undermine quality education. “I recognize that the cost of our education system is rising and that the burden on our property taxes is too much for some Vermonters to bear,” he wrote on his Web site.
Shumlin would make grants available to local communities to help them decide whether to consolidate. He would also provide grants to municipalities that want to use school buildings for community services. He would expand distance learning and “steer us away from the obsession with testing.”
Burlington Free Press, “Democratic gubernatorial candidates outline views on five key topics”
Burlington Free Press, “Gubernatorial candidates talk about public education”