At the end of a long day of media appearances in a swing across southern and central Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin launched his campaign at a bar in Burlington on Monday night before a crowd of about 200 Democratic Party faithful.
The governor, after months of waiting to formally declare his intentions, stood on a stage at Nectar’s, a popular local watering hole, and gave a speech in full campaign mode.
The 18-minute stemwinder in which Shumlin showed off his oratorical skill, hammered home two basic messages: Vermont is in better shape economically now than it was two years ago when he took office, and he is delivering on the promises he made in his campaign two years ago to improve broadband access and education quality and to create a single payer health care reform system.
The main themes? Prosperity in the midst of difficult times and his own determination to be the state’s No. 1 change agent. Shumlin, who tends to refer to himself in the first person plural, or the royal “we,” often repeats the following line and this occasion was no different: “We always promised we would get tough things done to grow jobs and economic opportunities.”
Among the toughest of those tough things? The governor’s health care plan, which is in the formative stages and faces an uphill battle with some employers who worry about higher insurance premium costs. The Shumlin administration won’t release its plan for financing the system until after the election.
Shumlin ticked off a list of accomplishments since he was elected in 2010, and he started and ended with the economy: Vermont’s fifth lowest unemployment rate in the country, the creation of 7,500 jobs and the nation’s highest bond rating.
Broadband access, he says, was on a par with Bosnia and Vietnam when he took office two years ago, and now all but 16,000 households have been connected. He says the administration will ensure universal high-speed Internet access is available to “every last mile of Vermont by the end of 2013.”
“We’re making progress,” Shumlin said. “We’re on the right track. When I came into office two years ago, people running companies were looking at their boots, saying, ‘Governor, I think I’m going to have to do another round of layoff, I think we may have more bad news.’ Today employers tell me, ‘Governor, I can’t find enough employees to do the work that’s available. That’s prosperity. That’s jobs. That’s progress.”
That “prosperity,” however, isn’t being felt by enough Vermonters, Shumlin said. Too many, he said, have not seen their incomes rise in a decade and are working “one, two three, four, five jobs to make ends meet.” He said he would work to solve that problem in his next term. “I’m begging Vermonters for two more years to finish the job we have started,” Shumlin said.
The state is in good financial shape, Shumlin said, because his administration has balanced the state’s budget in difficult economic times.
“We have matched Montpelier’s appetite for spending with Vermonters’ ability to pay,” Shumlin said. “Together, we managed two more difficult deficit budgets without raising broad based taxes on Vermonters who have trouble paying their bills. That’s progress. That’s important. Democrats are fiscally responsible.”
The governor emphasized that his administration fostered economic gains and moved his ambitious agenda forward at the same time he managed four major storms in 2011, including the Lake Champlain flood and Tropical Storm Irene. As he has for a year now, the governor talked about these weather events in the context of climate change and briefly expounded on his determination to get Vermont “off its addiction to oil” and instead harness the sun and win to “ensure we lead in small, renewable power.”
Shumlin’s main preoccupation in the speech, besides “jobs and prosperity,” was health care reform.
He fell back on the rhetoric that has become a refrain of his tenure in office: “We are delivering on the most thoughtful publicly financed single payer health care system in America, where health care is a right and not a privilege, where it follows the individual and isn’t required by the employer, and where everyone has quality health care while spending less money.”
The governor then used Bill Clinton style arithmetic to lay out the problem and undercut his opponent Republican Randy Brock’s recently released health care framework, which relies on a market-based approach to controlling costs.
“We have 45,000 uninsured Vermonters,” Shumlin began. “They wake up every day knowing if they are sick they have a huge financial problem knowing if they avoid preventive care they … won’t have to pay the bill and therefore they wait until they have catastrophic care before they get the health care they deserve.
“We know that we have 160,000 underinsured Vermonters, who if they really get sick know the gap between their insurance coverage, which is growing in double digit numbers, will not help them out, and they will face bankruptcy to pay their medical bills,” the governor said.
That state of affairs, Shumlin said, is “not acceptable,” nor is it financially tenable in his view.
“I’m going to do what Bill Clinton might ask you to do if he were here,” Shumlin said to the roar of the crowd. “Let’s do some simple arithmetic. Let’s do the simple math on health care.”
Shumlin said if health care costs rise at the current rate of inflation over the last 10 years, individual Vermonters will be spending $2,500 more a year by 2015. Between 2015 and 2020, he said, residents will spend $4,700 more a year on medical costs. Health care expenditures in Vermont are now $5 billion a year. In eight years, the total cost will be $10 billion a year, he said.
“I ask you a simple question: Where do we think that money is going to come from?” Shumlin said.
“When folks tell you, when skeptics tell you, you know governor, this plan of yours it’s ambitious and what I don’t know scares me,” Shumlin said. “I say simply this, and I ask you to join me this fall, Vermonters, we are smart, we are independent, we can add. What we know must scare us we must come up with a system that doesn’t bankrupt our businesses, kick our middle class in the teeth and make health care unaffordable for every Vermonter. That’s the course we’re on, and we’ve got a plan, we can do that together, and when we do, trust me, the other states will follow.”
Shumlin then took jabs at two aspects of Brock’s health care plan, first complaining he had to read it three times to understand what it meant.
The governor said the Republican wants to roll back the state’s community rating law, which was established by GOP Gov. Richard Snelling in 1991, shortly before he died. At the time, insurance companies were allowed to charge patients who were sick more for premiums than they did for healthy people. Shumlin says he served on the House Health Care Committee as a representative then, and helped to pass the legislation.
“My opponent wants … to repeal community rating,” Shumlin said. “Let me be clear. What that means is, if you’re older, if you’re sick, if you have a pre-existing condition, if you have successfully battled breast cancer, your premium will go up 300 percent, at a time when Vermonters can’t afford health care as it is.”
“I ask you for the logic in the plan,” Shumlin continued. “It’s coldhearted; it’s wrong. Gov. Snelling would say, ‘Do not take us backwards, Vermont Republicans.’”
With obvious relish, the governor then took aim at Brock’s medical tourism proposal, which he said he read four times before he got it.
He explained his understanding of how Brock’s proposal would work: “You say to people all over the world Vermont’s a great place to visit. When you get sick come here for your surgery and use one of our resorts to recover.”
“I’m from a resort community, I’m from Windham County,” Shumlin said. “We’ve got four — we’ve got Mount Snow, we’ve got Stratton, we’ve got Bromley, we got Haystack. Four things I can tell you about those four resorts: Far from any hospital.”
The crowd erupted in titters and applause as he wound up his speech with: “We don’t need medical tourism, we don’t need to move back to the pre-Dick Snelling years.”