Politics

Session Preview 2016: Medicaid, McAllister and Marijuana

VermontLegislature2013_186

The top two political leaders at the Vermont Statehouse share a concern about balancing the state budget while still protecting Vermonters. Both want a senator facing criminal sex charges to stay away from the Golden Dome. And neither are high on the idea of legalizing marijuana but won’t stand in the way of it being passed.

Medicaid, McAllister and Marijuana.

That might well sum up the key issues Speaker of the House Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell will be juggling in the next four or five months as they lead their respective chambers. Lawmakers return to Montpelier Tuesday for the second half of this two-year legislative session.

The 150 representatives and 30 senators face some familiar challenges: More money is needed for the state’s share of Medicaid, in part because more Vermonters than ever are on the public health care program. They see growing demands on human services programs either directly or indirectly related to the insidious opiate problem that has weaved its way into Vermont and much of the country. And one of their first tasks will be to try to fix a law they passed last year that they hope will slow the growth of education spending, which continues to go up despite fewer and fewer students.

Vermont Speaker of the House Rep. Shap Smith, D-Morristown. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger
Speaker of the House Rep. Shap Smith, D-Morristown. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

There will be pressure from advocates pushing ideas like taxing carbon or making changes in health care delivery and payment. Unlike some years in the recent past, there does not appear to be a high-profile social issue, like gay marriage or death with dignity, that will dominate the session, except for the anticipated philosophical (and financial) discussion over the pros and cons of legalizing pot.

One of the biggest unknowns, according to both leaders, is what the reaction will be when Sen. Norm McAllister returns. The Franklin County Republican was led out of the building last spring, charged with sex crimes, including allegations he repeatedly raped an intern working for him at the Statehouse. Will he be successfully stripped of his powers as a lawmaker? Will there be protests? Will it be a media circus?

The Statehouse is the biggest stadium and stage for Vermont politics. This year, observers will be watching to see how effective Gov. Peter Shumlin and Speaker Smith will fare as lame ducks. Will Lt. Gov. Phil Scott use his pulpit to promote his run for governor? All eyes will be watching to see who will emerge and fill the vacuum with an almost complete reshuffling of the political leadership deck, with three of the four key legislative players — governor, lieutenant governor and speaker — moving on.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor. VTDigger Photo by Mark Johnson.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor. VTDigger Photo by Mark Johnson.

In separate interviews, Speaker Smith and Senate President Campbell discussed the upcoming session, some of their priorities and how they would lead their respective chambers where Democrats heavily dominate over Republicans. We also spoke with Lt. Gov. Scott, the highest-ranking member of the GOP, who is the presiding officer of the Senate, and running to replace Shumlin.

Some highlights:

— Smith said he was “appalled’’ that McAllister plans to return. Asked if it would be an admission of guilt to not show up, Smith said McAllister had been already caught on tape by police allegedly discussing sex for rent, that “he’s already got problems with admissions.”

— Along with Smith, Campbell wants McAllister expelled. But the Senate leader, a lawyer and part-time prosecutor, says there are good reasons to not take that action. Campbell’s worry is if the Senate expels McAllister, he could appeal and his alleged victims would be called to testify before lawmakers. After that, Campbell says they may not want to testify again in the criminal trial scheduled for February. Smith, also a lawyer, agrees no action should be taken under the Golden Dome that would jeopardize the criminal case.

— Separately, Campbell is also concerned there will be protests over McAllister returning and that they could be ugly. Smith is worried about the safety of some in the Statehouse, including legislative pages, and says he will ask the Joint Rules Committee to address his concerns.

— Scott calls the McAllister situation “unfortunate” and says if the state senator were a teacher or a police officer he would be on leave and not on the job.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. VTDigger Photo by Mark Johnson.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. VTDigger Photo by Mark Johnson.

— Smith and Campbell said Vermonters should not be surprised, nor necessarily unhappy, that lawmakers seem to start every year with a hole in the Medicaid budget. It means, they say, more Vermonters are going to the doctor. They say the amount the program pays doctors and hospitals is too little and is dangerously squeezing the system.

— Campbell thinks the Agency of Human Services has become too big and wants to see it broken up. He believes the Department of Corrections, for example, would be more efficient as a separate entity.

— Smith grew animated when he spoke about the need for the state to focus on helping struggling communities, like Springfield, outside of Chittenden County, the state’s economic engine.

— A carbon tax, according to the speaker, “is NOT going to happen.”

— Despite past criticism, Campbell said he has grown as a leader. He said his style is often misunderstood, that he works more behind the scenes, with less fanfare, does not wield power “like a bully” and seeks less recognition than his two more charismatic predecessors as head of the Senate, Shumlin and Congressman Peter Welch.

— Yes, Campbell admits he’s bothered not being mentioned in the mix when people speculate about candidates for governor. But he said he’s not disappointed, largely, he said, because he has never viewed or constructed his political career as a series of rungs to climb. He plans on running in November and knows with other leaders leaving, he could become more influential in the next legislative session.

— Smith says he’s more convinced than ever he was right to drop out of the race for governor to help care for his wife, Melissa, who is being treated for breast cancer. He is also not running again for his House seat and said he would miss the camaraderie and intellectual challenge of the Legislature. He made no definite statements but smiled broadly when asked if serving in political office again would be a part of his future.

— Scott says he will look at every bill through the lens of what it will do to create jobs and its effect on the economy. He says the state needs to spend less and he doesn’t care if he sounds like a broken record, the needle stuck on a track called “The Affordability Crisis.”

On the Medicaid gap

The Medicaid gap is a two-fold challenge. Lawmakers need to cover higher costs than what they planned for when they passed the budget last spring. They need to come up with roughly $35 million for this year. Projections for next year could mean lawmakers need to come up with an additional $50 million on top of that, though Smith and Campbell say the numbers are changing, other accounts might be tapped, and the deficit may lessen.

The program has greatly expanded. Five years ago, roughly 170,000 Vermonters used the program. Today, it is more than 200,000, almost one out of three Vermonters. The total cost of the program, subsidized largely by the federal government has gone from $1 billion to $1.56 billion over that same period.

Said Smith: “I think this is an issue that exists in perpetuity. The fact of the matter is we have increasing health care costs whether it’s in the public health insurance sector or whether it’s the private health insurance sector. In the private sector, you just charge more for premiums. Because Medicaid is supported by taxes and everyone hates taxes, people are spooked and they’re like, ‘What are we going to do, what are we going to do,’ and the fact of the matter is I think the governor said it right: We’ve had a lot of success, we’ve covered a lot of people … if we want to continue to have that public health success, we ought to pay for it.”

Cutting benefits, Smith said, is “not palatable.” That’s telling low-income people they may have no insurance and “that just doesn’t work from my perspective.”

Reducing reimbursements rates further doesn’t make sense either, he said. One major hospital, Dartmouth Hitchcock, has sued over the rates and some practitioners say they can’t stay in business.

The speaker also said he was in a tiny minority who supported the governor’s payroll tax last year, which could have drawn down hundreds of millions in federal funds for Medicaid. But the plan was poorly rolled out and support not built ahead of time, even among those, such as hospitals, that would have benefited.

“If you don’t have the people who are going to be benefiting from it lined up together, then you just can’t move something that is as politically difficult as that is,” Smith said.

Campbell said: “Some people have suggested we just come in and cut benefits and look at eligibility and cut some people from the rolls. But unfortunately, I understand what their concern is and their feeling that would be a solution, but I can tell you it wouldn’t be a solution … (lawmakers would be) not only walking away from an unspoken duty to provide health care to all Vermonters, we would be fiscally making a huge mistake because those certain people will seek their medical care through emergency rooms.”

Scott says the program needs better management and accountability. He said the rolls need to be scrubbed of those who don’t qualify, higher penalties may be needed to deter abuse, and internal and external audits are critical.

“It’s obvious, we cannot afford what we have today, so we have to adjust limits to fit our ability to pay, with priority given to the most vulnerable,” Scott said.

On another health care topic, Campbell says he had “initial doubts” but now wants to study an idea promoted by Smith to expand a successful children’s health program, Dr. Dynasaur, to include young adults up to age 26.

What to do about McAllister

One of the first orders of business before the Senate will be whether to expel, suspend or take no action against McAllister. The Rules Committee voted last month in favor of suspension.

Scott says: “It’s unfortunate it’s come to this point. I firmly believe Senator McAllister should have done the right thing for all involved and resigned long before now. Having said that, I am hopeful the Senate can deal with the situation during the first week of the session resulting in the suspension of Senator McAllister. If an educator or law enforcement officer had been charged with serious criminal charges of this magnitude, they would have been placed on administrative leave.”

Norm McAllister
Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Campbell says the Franklin County prosecutor asked him that no action be taken that could hurt the prosecution of the case.

“So I as a leader have to look and say, “OK, what do we do here?’ Do we potentially corrupt or interfere with the criminal case?” he said of voting on expulsion. “Or do we just go ahead and just so we can say he’s out the Senate and we should be happy with that? And I think that the victims in the case deserve a lot more than just having him expelled from the Senate. I believe that they, both he and the victims, are entitled to their day in court and I for one don’t want the Vermont State Senate to interfere with that process.

“And I know that there are going to be people who question that. There are going to be people who think that I’m absolutely wrong, but if they want to get a pound of flesh, it’s best, I believe, that it is done in the criminal courts where there is the proper jurisdiction and not in the state Senate where the most we could do would be to expel him as a member.”

Campbell says the Senate is “tainted” by the charges as well. McAllister says he plans to fight any Senate suspension.

Smith agrees preserving the criminal case is paramount, but he says inaction signals a bigger problem many Vermonters have with the Legislature.

The McAllister case, Smith said, is “part of a larger picture of: Do these people really get our concerns? I think people who know about the allegations are as appalled as I am and wonder why he’s not gone. I think most people are like ‘Is this guy with no shame?’”

All three leaders can’t understand why McAllister isn’t putting his entire focus on the criminal case. Smith dismissed the idea that McAllister might think it was an admission of guilt if he didn’t show up in Montpelier.

“Well, maybe the taped conversation that he made is also an admission,” Smith said, referring to a tape police made. “He’s already got problems with admissions.”

Tepid reaction to pot legalization

Marijuana legalization is also expected to be heavily debated. The leaders of the two chambers are not enthusiastic about seeing it passed. Neither is Scott.

Smith says he could support legalization if assurances could be made that impaired drivers would be dealt with and legal weed kept away from children. Campbell thinks it’s a bad idea and sends a poor message while the state battles an opiate addiction crisis. Scott says there is “no hurry” and Smith says it’s not ready for prime time.

“I’ve been around this building a long time and I have this sort of intuition of when I think things are ready and when I think they are not and this bill just doesn’t feel ready,” Smith said. “It doesn’t feel ready to go all the way through. That’s not to say I’m going to prevent it from going all the way through. When I talk to people there are a lot of questions that people are asking that advocates for legalization haven’t satisfactorily answered.”

“It just doesn’t feel to me like it’s going to go all the way through this year,” the speaker said.

Just a few of the questions include which state agency would regulate the business, how the drug would be distributed and how stoned drivers would be prosecuted.

The speaker said supporters who assume it will pass because the Legislature is controlled by Democrats would be “wrong’’ and “they are going to be sad if they don’t do their homework.”

There are 85 Democrats, 53 Republicans, 6 Progressives and 6 Independents in the House. In the Senate, it is a 21-9 majority for Democrats over Republicans.

Scott said: “I’m not saying never, but I’m not convinced we are ready, and the rush to passage shouldn’t be about money. We have an opportunity to see the positive and negative effects of legalization with the other states who have moved forward. I am particularly interested in areas such as the detection of driving while impaired, the use of edibles and workplace safety. From my standpoint, there is no hurry.”

Campbell said: “This is what it comes down to. For us, a state government to think that it is all right to balance their budget by making a previously illegal substance legal, to me, is a sorry state of affairs. We should not be looking to balance our budget by making pot legal.”

And the timing is poor, Campbell said, with the state’s focus on fighting opiate addiction. Still, he thinks it may pass.

Campbell, a deputy state’s attorney in Windsor County, is a former police officer. Early in his law enforcement career, his partner was killed in the line of duty.

During a break in an interview at his White River Junction office, Campbell went to a hearing in Vermont District Court. There, a man was facing burglary charges for robbing convenience stores, allegedly to feed a heroin habit.

“I don’t think pot is a gateway drug,” Campbell said after the hearing, “but I sure think that it’s a terrible message to send that we’re legalizing a substance that is going to be an altering substance, and we’re legalizing it now, but whatever you do, don’t go near that heroin or cocaine or any other these substances that alter your feelings.”

Campbell also expressed concern about the safety of social workers. A longtime employee of the Department for Children and Families, he said, recently quit over threats she received.

Campbell also pushed back on another issue lawmakers are expected to debate: Should more prisoners be released? He argues the vast majority of those still behind bars committed “heinous crimes” and should stay there.

In his 20-hour-a-week job, Campbell prosecutes primarily sex abuse cases. He also said the drug problem has led to crimes unheard of before, including a case in Northfield where a victim was doused with gasoline and burned to death.

“I think most people are unaware of the level of criminal activity that occurs,” he said.

And the effect the opiate problem is having on children, he said, is profound. It is now the main reason that he has seen for children to be removed from their homes in Windsor County.

Medicaid. McAllister. Marijuana. Maybe add methadone too.

And Mother Nature and man-made snow — and whether the lack of it early on will hurt tax revenues and the economy.

The Vermont Statehouse. VTDigger Photo by Mark Johnson.
The Vermont Statehouse. VTDigger Photo by Mark Johnson.

It will be a year of transitions: a governor and speaker retiring from political office, the lieutenant governor leaving his post, seeking higher office.

At the end of his term, Smith, 50, will have served 14 years in the House, eight years as speaker. Scott, 57, was a senator for a decade before he became lieutenant governor six years ago. Shumlin, 59, has been a presence in the Statehouse for more than two decades, first as a representative and then as a senator before he was elected governor in 2010.

Together, the three have more than 50 years of experience in Montpelier. (Campbell, 61, who plans to stay, was first elected to the Senate in 2000 and chosen senate pro tem in 2011.)

Smith said of the departures: “It will just be a different environment. I do think it will take some getting used to in the respective institutions, having players who’ve been here for a while, who know how the system works, and know how to move legislation, gone.

“I think that all of us have proven ourselves to be pretty effective in the building and I think it will be a pretty significant difference,” Smith said.

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy

VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Mark Johnson

Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Session Preview 2016: Medicaid, McAllister and Marijuana"
  • Bob Stannard

    People have been smoking marijuana since approximately 1500-2000 BC. In this country it was prohibited in the 1920’s; right around the time prohibition of alcohol started. It was deemed illegal as late as 1937 (booze was ironically deemed legal).

    The question as to whether or not to legalize marijuana does not need more study. It’s a plant. It grows wild. Some people like to smoke. Some don’t. Those that do seem to do so responsibly. Those that don’t smoke don’t want anyone else to either.

    Of course marijuana should not be given to kids. Neither should candy, cigarettes and booze (you might toss guns in there just for fun). If we can all agree on this then the only question is who better to distribute pot; the State through a controlled process, or Gomer your local street dealer who would sell pot to anyone who didn’t turn him in (and threaten those who might).

    Pot most certainly affects anyone who smokes it, but are those affects worse than the affects of alcohol? No. If you drink an entire bottle of vodka at one time it will kill you. It is impossible to overdose from smoking pot. That should just about be all that anyone would need to conclude that this “drug” should be legal for responsible adults.

    Perhaps we should stop telling people what they should and shouldn’t do and allow them to prove that they’re responsible enough to smoke this stuff. BTW, yes there will be people who will prove that they are not responsible; just like they prove that in one way or another each and everyday. That is not a good reason to inhibit our leaders from moving forward.

  • timothy price“

    “Campbell thinks it’s a bad idea (legalizing pot) and sends a poor message while the state battles an opiate addiction crisis.”

    This is full of wrong assumptions. Where is there any evidence that legalizing marijuana is going to increase opiate use? None exists. And for that matter, making pot legal removes it from contact with drug dealers.

    And were do you suppose the opiates come from? Since the US has restored Afghanistan and Iraq as the greatest producers of opium, perhaps it would be more productive to ask the federal government. Opiates have been used by governments for centuries as a way to subdue the people and extract their money. I see that is the case here as well. Vermont is under attack and the feds and the banks are to profit.

    Legalize marijuana.. get it available to the people in a controlled manner, and remove it from the absurd classification as a class 1 controlled drug. Allow cultivation for personal use.

    Charge the federal government for the CIA involvement in the opium trade and bank laundering of the money.
    http://mediaroots.org/opium-what-afghanistan-is-really-about/

    • Glenn Thompson

      Timothy Price,

      “Campbell thinks it’s a bad idea (legalizing pot) and sends a poor message while the state battles an opiate addiction crisis.”

      “This is full of wrong assumptions. Where is there any evidence that legalizing marijuana is going to increase opiate use? None exists. And for that matter, making pot legal removes it from contact with drug dealers.”

      I agree with Campbell.

      You can start here to get an understanding why legalizing Marijuana will do nothing to address the Opiates problem.

      “And the legalization of marijuana in some states has pushed down prices, leading many Mexican farmers to switch crops. Cartels, meanwhile, have adapted, edging into American markets once reserved for higher quality heroin from Southeast Asia while pressing out of urban centers into suburbs and rural communities.”

      http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/world/americas/mexican-opium-production-rises-to-meet-heroin-demand-in-us.html

      This article backs up the presentation by the US Border Patrol I attended recently in Southern Arizona where a Border Patrol agent stated legalizing Marijuana will lead to an increase of Opium production south of the border.

      I would strongly urge Montpelier to contact the proper US authorities along the Southern US border before jumping blindly into passing a law to legalize Marijuana. The emphasis should be in dealing with the growing Opiates problem not passing a law without fully understanding the consequences by doing so!

  • David Usher

    While wide ranging and important, this story is far too long. Only avid political junkies will read it.

    • Jason Wells

      I would dare to guess most who read VTDigger would fall into the avid political junkie category.

  • David White

    besides the long tenure of these individuals,doesn’t any one correlate them with the failures of the legislature over the past 10 years? They are in charge, but yet take no responsibilities for the failures of the legislature during their leadership. Where is the intuitive feelings of the speaker when they pass underfunded programs, tax increases , act 46, vt health connect, and unbalanced budgets since 2007? I am truly amazed that all of these folks keep getting relected when their failures are so repetitively blatant. It appears that the majority of their constituents must be directly benefitting financially by these failures. How else would one keep getting relected. These are just a few thoughts one might have reading this article. I am wondering how other readers are interpreting this piece.

  • Neil Johnson

    The top three priorities clearly demonstrate that no body is listening to the average Vermont Citizen.

  • PATRICK ZACHARY

    Medicaid and Marijuana in the same breath sounds right. The folks that put a full 1/3 of the VT population on medicaid must have been smoking marijuana and before they get caught for blowing our budget continuously they want to be sure that it is leagal

    • Francis Janik

      Actually, Patrick, The Medicaid deficit would be diminished by the funds from canna-business. We could direct the funds to relieve this budget shortfall. By legalizing we will create jobs and keep younger residents from leaving our state.

      • Neil Johnson

        Yeah, we attract all the drug users on the east coast to come and do drugs in Vermont. Perhaps not such a great game plan. You don’t think we’ll have any issues? 100 million people within a days drive, let’s road trip to Vermont and get High! We are quickly becoming a loser state, when the three priorities are welfare, sex offenders and drug dealers.

        We invite what we focus our attention on. We need to get our heads out of the toilet.

        Maybe if we give even more welfare benefits we can get more than 50% of the population on welfare. We can import them from Massachusetts….NY, ME, if you give the best benefits in the country……they will come, or have you noticed?

  • Francis Janik

    The primary reason to ask our legislators to legalize Cannabis is for civil rights for Cannabis users, growers, and small business. The growing, selling and use of this plant has been a background economic factor in Vermont for many decades. We want to keep the jobs local. We are working with the Prevention Community to control access by minors. We have asked for an open free enterprise market. Senator, White and Senator Benning’s bill S-241 works towards eliminating costly police actions, court costs, incarceration costs at aproimately $30.000 to $65,000 per prisoner per year. The Federal Government is acting in an incongruous manner. The schedule 1 classification is no longer valid. The science tells us the story. We have been lied to for over 75 years, not to save us, but for the profit of a few in the 1930’s. The States must lead, telling the Federal Government that they are continuing to perpetuate this unjust prohibition. Nixon made the truth top secret for 20 + years. Just follow the money. for profit prisons, alcohol manufactures, rehabilitation companies, and last but not least the Major Pharmaceutical companies.
    Senator White’s bill S-241 which will be introduced in the coming weeks will initially allow all Vermont residents home grow. S-241 supports small growers who have farms. The Vermont Home Grown group here in Vermont has been working to craft legislation to keep the growing local and cannabis away from minors. Additionally, the hundreds of medical patients forced to grow indoors would be free to use the sun to grow. Please join us in supporting S-241. Lets keep it local and green!

    • Neil Johnson

      The new American road to happiness, drugs and alcohol. We can be world leaders once again!

      Maybe when you know more people who’ve ruined their lives with drugs and alcohol, you won’t think it’s so cool. It’s a false economy. It’s a lie. Yeah there can be good times, but the bad times……..you can take that chance.

  • Chuck Shannon

    Legalize pot in a State crippled by addiction? Surely you joke. Over 50 percent of Vermont is on Welfare benefit. How can they afford another drug?

  • Ron Avery

    Not legalizing cannabis ensures an easy to get and steady supply to the children and keeps the avenue open to other drugs like heroin. The fact is, cannabis and the rest ARE available right now, today in any high school in the state and to believe otherwise is ludicrous. The time has come to take control: legalize and regulate.

    • Neil Johnson

      The fact the drugs are easily obtainable in Prison and Schools shows how we have totally failed. We aren’t helping those in need reform and allowing kids to get hooked on drugs in school. We can’t, nor should we try and control everything people do, but we can certainly keep a couple of buildings drug free. We just putting zero effort in doing so.

  • Great to see Mark Johnson back on the scene. Sorely missed at WDEV, his successor just doesn’t cut it, but truly wonderful that he’s here.