Senate Democrats set legislative priorities

Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth summarizes the priorities for the 2014 legislative session, as identified by caucus members Thursday. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth summarizes the priorities for the 2014 legislative session, as identified by caucus members Thursday. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Bridging a $70 million budget gap, monitoring Vermont Health Connect and taking stock of the state’s mental health system are the main concerns for Senate Democrats in 2014.

Nearly everyone in the 23-member caucus convened at the Capitol Plaza Hotel on Thursday in Montpelier to pinpoint their priorities for the 2014 session.

Beyond the big three, there was a widespread scope of agendas among lawmakers.

The Democratic senators placed several bills, which passed in the House but hit snags in the Senate, high on the list for 2014. Among them is legislation to stiffen regulations on the development of lakeshores, a bill to allow child care workers to unionize, and one to mandate paid sick leave.

The priority-setting exercise spurred a series of impromptu speeches from senators.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, spoke about the need to reverse wage stagnation and growing income inequality.

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, warned of the drawbacks of industrial wind projects.

Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, strategized about one of his longtime goals — legislation to label GMO foods, which passed the House passed last session and will be assigned to committee in January.

The topic of wind appeared no less contentious than the year before, when Rodgers was a ring leader for a bill that would have placed a three-year moratorium on large-scale wind projects.

Thursday, Rodgers test-drove a new argument against the projects: That turbine production has degraded the environment in China.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, quickly jumped in, disputing Rodger’s call for an overhaul of the state’s energy plan.

“There’s a lot of heat and light in it,” Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, observed, before steering the conversation back toward the budget.

On the issue of flat wages, several Democrats lined up behind a bill to raise the minimum wage. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, who joined the gathering by phone, from Paris, proffered the legislation as one solution.

Shumlin, when asked about it, pledged to be open-minded, but made no promises.

“I’m willing to enter into any conversation about ways to ensure we have an equitable minimum wage,” Shumlin said. But, he added, “Obviously with everything we do, the devil is always in the details.”

Shumlin and Campbell reassured the caucus that the budget gap, though sizeable, is nothing new and can be addressed without, as Shumlin put it, “sticking it to the most vulnerable Vermonters.”

But not all caucus members echoed their optimism. “We have seen this movie five times,” MacDonald said, and once again, “it feels like the script has been written for us.” He described the lawmakers’ role as doing damage control for the impact of cuts on middle and low-income Vermonters.”

“We appear hopeless in how we as a state legislature can make a difference and then we take great pride in the things that we work hard at to see that it happens gently,” MacDonald said. “I’ve said to a couple colleagues in the Senate that one of the things we do as a Democratic caucus is go out to the public and say, ‘Gee, things are really bad but they’d be even worse if the Republicans were in charge, and I don’t know how many years in a row we can do that.”

Several senators made calls to action for addressing opiate addiction, as did Shumlin who said he’ll propose solutions to the Legislature at the start of the session. “I am willing, as governor, to have the courage to do things differently despite the risks.”

The governor had a grim assessment of what will happen if the Legislature doesn’t take action. “Our sense of security, our sense of place, our sense of community, our sense of safety — it’s going to go down the tubes.”

Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Shumlin offered the same message on health care — look past the naysayers and those prone to “embellishing” the problems with Vermont Health Connect and the challenges of transitioning to a publicly financed system.

“I understand there are problems and there are going to be people who are going to take that and they are going to try to embellish that,” Campbell said. “I would hope that each and every one remain committed to the goals we set forth when it came down to talking abut health care for all Vermonters.”

Shumlin repeated the same message he delivered to House Democrats last week, asking them to plow the ground for single payer.

Follow Alicia on Twitter @aefreese

Alicia FreeseAlicia Freese

Comments

  1. Kim Fried :

    Let me just inform the Govenor once again that “our sense of security, are sense of place, our sense of community, our sense of safety-it’s going down the tubes” is already a reality in the Northeast Kingdom thanks to his, “his”, the GOVENOR’S policies on ridge line industrial wind development. I guess it just depends who he’s willing to destroy.

  2. Senator Rodgers is correct to call for an overhaul of the state’s energy programs.

    1) The SPEED projects produce low-quality energy at an increasing average cost, and the average has been increasing EACH YEAR SINCE INCEPTION, according to DPS records.

    Analysis of DPS data shows SPEED energy production costs of:

    2010, last six months: 13.87 c/kWh
    2011: 16.44
    2012: 17.16
    2013, first eight months: 19.30

    http://vermontspeed.com/speed-monthly-production/
    http://vermontspeed.squarespace.com/project-status/

    2) The Lowell Mountain ridge line wind turbine plant:

    – capital cost was about $2600/kW to build versus about $2000/kW in the Midwest,

    – capacity factor is less than 0.20 versus 0.33 claimed; all of the Northeast has a CF of 0.24 versus 0.36 in the Midwest.
    http://www1.eere.energy.gov/wind/pdfs/2012_wind_technologies_market_report.pdf

    – O&M cost is about 2 times Midwest.

    – useful service life is about 20 years, per NREL studies and European experience, not the 25 years claimed by GMP.

    – is production COST is at least 15 c/kWh, but the sale of RECs reduces it to 10 c/kWh.

    – GMP is no longer crowing about how thrilling it is to have ridge line wind turbines; more like a nightmare.

    Dysfunctional is the only apt name for it. For Senator Lyons to be a proponent of dysfunctional energy programs is irrational and dismal.

    It would be much better if she became a real proponent of increased energy efficiency, instead of just a lip-service proponent

  3. Vermont’s government budget is increasing, its programs gobble up more money than estimated, its spending exceeds what can be squeezed from the shrinking, hollowed-out private sector; EB-5 and various federal government funds/subsidies is not going to save Vermont.

    – It is time to reduce spending by at least $100 million/yr, because next year Vermont’s economy will do worse than this year, as the FED’s $85 billion/MONTH pump-priming with phantom money will be tapering down in 2014.

    – Education spending is grossly out of control.

    – Platinum healthcare plans for state, county and municipal employees have to be turned into bronze plans, with employees paying 50% of the premiums. If an employee wants a silver, gold or platinum plan, he has to pay 100% of the premium difference.

    From 2007 – 2009, household real incomes decreased 17.4%; the top 1% decreased about 33%, the bottom 99% decreased 11.6%.
    From 2009 – 2012, household real incomes of the top 1% increased 31.4%, which brought them back about to the level before 2007.
    From 2009 – 2012, household real incomes of the bottom 99% increased 0.4%, which left them 11.2% in the hole.

    Vermont’s governments continue to impose increased taxes and fees on these households, grow the bloated government sector relative to the shrinking, hollowed-out private sector, as if all is well.

    Such “recoveries” have been typical since about 1973.

    From 1940 to the early 1970s, the top 10% received about 33% of total personal income; it was 50% in 2007; 47% in 2009; over 50% in 2012. See Figure 1 of URL
    From the early 1970s, the top 1% have had an increasing share of total personal income; it was 22% in 2012, a record. See Figure 2 of URL
    http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf

    RENEWABLE ENERGY INCREASES INEQUALITY; ENERGY EFFICIENCY DECREASES IT!!

    The top 1% cash in on the federal and state tax credits and subsidies for their renewable energy projects, which enable them to shelter their excessive incomes from taxes and further increase their wealth.

    The result is an increasing tax burden, higher electric rates and additional fees on the bottom 99%; an unholy mix of profit seeking, tax sheltering and crony-capitalist politics that boost RE lobbies, etc., into unwarranted political prominence.

    Vermont’s RE polices (a la SPEED and a la Lowell ridge line wind) are not designed to work; they produce low-quality, non-dispatchable energy at 3 -4 times NE grid prices. They are designed to sell a mix of centralized command and control government, which:

    – politicians like because it makes them more important, nets them bigger pork barrels, more votes, and creates more government jobs, and
    – enable energy companies to wrap the bane of higher energy prices and crony-capitalist profiteering into the halo of “fighting global-warming/climate-change”.

    Democrats in Montpelier need to wake up to this reality. They could become more humane leaders by promoting EE for low and medium income households, instead of RE for multi-millionaires.

    Sources:
    US Census Bureau
    US Department of Labor
    Dr. Emmanuel Saez, Economist, University of California
    http://www.vnews.com/opinion/9769064-95/column-income-inequality-has-been-years-in-the-making

    • Doug Hoffer :

      Mr. Post said, “Vermont’s…spending exceeds what can be squeezed from the shrinking, hollowed-out private sector.”

      In fact, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the real (inflation adjusted) growth of Vermont’s private sector Gross State Product from 2008 to 2012 was 14th best in the country, well above the U.S. rate, and the highest in New England.

      Facts matter Mr. Post.

  4. Kathy Callaghan :

    Campbell said. “I would hope that each and every one remain committed to the goals we set forth when it came down to talking abut health care for all Vermonters.”

    The goals we set forth were universal health care for all.

    It will be interesting to see what the voting public is willing to pay when the cost of the “single payer” option finally becomes known.

    We all favor universal health care coverage, but many people question whether Act 48 as written is the way to accomplish the goal.

    Don’t forget, Act 48 was passed in 2010 based on the underlying premise of the Hsaio report’s purported “$590 million savings in the first year”. We nowknow that not only will there be no $590m savings the first year, but estimates are that the first year costs will be between $1.6 billion and $2.2 billion.

    It is time for a responsible Legislature to revisit Act 48 as being the only way to achieve universal coverage. in light of today’s reality.

    Perhaps it can be amended, or perhaps we can “plow new ground” to paraphrase the Governor. Either way the basic premises of Act 48 as originally passed have changed sufficiently to warrant further scrutiny and new ideas.

    • Lee Russ :

      “the Hsaio report’s purported “$590 million savings in the first year”. We now know that not only will there be no $590m savings the first year, but estimates are that the first year costs will be between $1.6 billion and $2.2 billion.”

      You make it sound like we’ve gone from expecting to save $590 million to expecting to lose $1.6 to $2.2 billion. Not true unless I’ve missed something major.

      The savings estimate compared total healthcare costs under the current system to total healthcare costs under Green Mountain Care. The cost of instituting GMC was taken into account in that estimate, it is not some “new” cost that has been sprung on anyone.

      “It is time for a responsible Legislature to revisit Act 48 as being the only way to achieve universal coverage. in light of today’s reality.”

      No one ever said it was “the only” way. It was chosen as a viable way that offered the best results based on many factors. Many steps have now been taken toward achieving that goal. You don’t throw everything in the trash and start over without a compelling reason. If you think you have that reason, please tell the rest of us what it is.

  5. Dave Bellini :

    “…healthcare plans for state, county and municipal employees have to be turned into bronze plans…”
    .
    I doubt Post would like a “bronze plan” response if he ever had to dial 911 and needed those state, county or municipal employees he disparages.

    • Dave,

      We are retired, on Social Security, pay $400 per mont month for Medicare and AARP premiums, no dental and no drug benefits.

      The vast majority of Vermonters do not even have the equivalence of a “bronze” plan.

      The government workers could upgrade their plans to a “silver” plan, just as we upgraded our Medicare Plan with an AARP Plan.

      • Dave Bellini :

        We all make our choices Willem. Government jobs don’t pay much money and there’s no one getting rich working for the state or a Vermont municipality. The average retired state employee pension is less than $25,000. per year. Employees choose this work in part because it offers stable employment and good benefits as a trade-off for lower pay, no bonuses, constantly changing rules and management and listening to people like you who want to bring benefit levels down to whatever you have. I’m in favor of you getting a plan as good as state workers. I want to bring people up, you want to pull them down.

  6. Tony Redington :

    Agree with Dave Bellini–somehow Quebequers enjoy full nondeductible/no copay health care for all including prescriptions (also $8 a day regulated daycare services). Also, to provide the $90 million needed each year for transportation (commuter rail, intercity rail, light rail for Burlington/Rutland, walking/bicycling infrastructure statewide, increased Town Highway Grants and, yes, funding needed bridge/highway projects) costs $15 per capita per year even without fed help. We do not have to choose to be public service poor, we can do so much more with public funds to support our citizens, improve our cities and towns and help both new and existing businesses. The Legislature/Governor need to stop poor-mouthing our status.

    • Tony Redington :

      Oops! A decimal place error. Using Census QuickFacts–a $90 million general fund increase for transportation equals $350 per Vermont household per year or 0.6% of the median household income of $54,168. The $350 for the household cost compares, for example, to a saving from changing a solo drive to a 20-mile Link bus commute out of Burlington, about $3,500 after taxes–plus an employer saves about $600 a year for every “free” parking space no longer required for an employee.

      Of course, $90 million in additional general fund revenues would include some from business and would be progressively raised by income and other sources. Are better roads, bridges, commuter and light rail, intercity rail, and a major walking and bicycling infrastructure for all downtowns and city centers–worth 99 cents a day for your household?

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