Politics

Inside the Golden Bubble: Shumlin’s Legislative ‘Nothing Burgers’

Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin gives his 2016 budget address. Photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

In his State of the State address to the Legislature in January, Gov. Peter Shumlin quoted the other governor who hailed from Putney, his hero, the iconic George Aiken: “There have been times we have encountered rough places on the highway of our history.”

According to many lawmakers, Aiken could well have been describing Shumlin in his final legislative biennium, particularly this year. They say his attempts to get legislation passed looked like a bumpy road with occasional large potholes and not much to show on this final stretch before hitting the off-ramp exit. That’s not just according to his critics under the Golden Dome, but allies as well.

While the governor touted numerous accomplishments in his final late-night adjournment address — and some lawmakers did too — many who serve in the Legislature saw something different this session: a once powerful chief executive weakened by a close election, who lost support on the left when he dropped plans for a single-payer health care system, was hurt by ongoing problems with the health care exchange and then saw any remaining leverage dissipate when he announced last year that he would not seek re-election.

“I think it’s been a difficult two years for Peter Shumlin. He’s a very close friend of mine. I feel very badly,” said Sen. Dick Sears, a key ally for the governor on many issues, including this year’s effort to legalize marijuana, one of the governor’s key priorities that failed.

“It started going downhill with his announcement that we couldn’t do single payer and it’s been going downhill since,” Sears said. “I think that whole fiasco at his inauguration just contributed to this” when protesters last year interrupted his speech, angry he had scrapped single payer as being too costly.

The governor has always had opposition from the right, Sears said, but “when he started getting hits from the left and right, it made it hard to govern,” Sears said.

Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. Photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

The Bennington Democrat praised the administration on issues including the recent drinking water contamination in his county but said point blank, the governor had not scored success of late at the Statehouse.

“It’s been a rough two years for Peter,” he said, adding the governor is so unpopular that Republican Bruce Lisman has been criticizing Shumlin, who is not running, instead of his primary opponent in the governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

“When people perceive you’re weak, it’s very difficult to get anything done,” Sears said.

Stowe Republican Heidi Scheuermann said the governor seemed “disengaged” since he announced he would not run for re-election in 2016.

Two of the larger profile issues Shumlin raised in his State of the State address were pot legalization and divestment of the pension funds from coal and Exxon Mobil investments. On both issues, he fell way short of his original goal.

“In my view, his involvement has consisted of tweeting through his spokesperson attacks, snarky sort of tweets. I just don’t think it was productive,” Scheuermann said. “He’s been absent.”

Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, said Shumlin “limped through” the last election, when he almost lost to newcomer Scott Milne and “lacked a mandate going forward.” Westman, who used to chair House Appropriations, said the continual unsolved budget pressures made it impossible for the governor “to do much that’s innovative.”

“You can’t do any big initiative without money and that became crippling,” Westman said.

On the left, Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, said the last two years produced little and the governor had the wrong priorities, pushing the legalization of marijuana instead of facing issues like the cost of college, homelessness and the tax code.

In addition, two years in a row, Shumlin’s proposals on Medicaid, including one involving pregnant women, were soundly rejected or withdrawn.

“I honestly can not point to any particular major accomplishments. We’ve done some small things that move us in the right direction, but we have done some things that continue to move us in the wrong direction,” Pollina said. “I don’t think the governor has accomplished very much, quite honestly.”

Pollina agreed with Westman about the ongoing problems balancing the budget. He said the wealthy needed to pay more and the current tax system was unsustainable. In some instances, Pollina said, “we pat ourselves on the back” when, for example, the Legislature voted this year to give back back $20 in benefits after taking away $125 per family last year to participants in the Reach Up program.

Pollina, hours before adjournment — punctuated by the governor’s address — paused when asked what Shumlin accomplished.

“I am frankly at a loss as to what he’s going to talk to us about in terms of any significant victories or anything we’ve moved forward with,” Pollina said.

In his comments to a joint assembly hours later, Shumlin acknowledged it was not a year for huge breakthroughs.

“This is not the era for ticker tape parades for public servants and endless thank you tributes from your constituents. But you should be proud of the work we’ve accomplished together; it will have a lasting impact for generations of Vermonters to come,” he said.

Anthony Pollina

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington. File photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

There were accomplishments, Pollina and others said. He pointed to a program that helps spur investments in affordable housing and local businesses and to another program that will help some deaf and blind Vermonters.

While marijuana legalization did not happen, despite a huge amount of effort by the governor, Rep. Ann Pugh, the chair of the House Human Services committee, said access to the medical marijuana program had been expanded.

Pugh, D-South Burlington, noted other steps forward, including more social workers to help abused children. She and Sears both lauded a new law that makes it a crime to threaten a social worker, with the hope of preventing another tragedy like the murder of Lara Sobel, who worked for the Department for Children and Families and was allegedly murdered by a client last August.

Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, hailed the passage of paid sick leave legislation and the “ban the box” bill that the governor had supported as important accomplishments. Pugh also noted a law that will help provide greater access to dental services for lower-income people. Allen Gilbert of the ACLU said the Legislature had taken significant steps to protect privacy.

A pro-marijuana legalization lobbyist, Adam Necrason, said the governor had not scored a touchdown but moved the discussion into the “red zone” with everyone agreeing marijuana prohibition was a failed strategy, setting the stage for future reforms.

Sen. Kevin Mullin called the session “productive’’ but said “unlike some past years where you can point to major initiative whether it be marriage equality or something like that, I don’t think that there is one bill you can point to this year that is a huge step forward for Vermont.”

Regarding Shumlin, the Rutland Republican said because it was his final year, there was not any bold new initiative. “I think overall, he fared pretty well.” But when challenged, Mullin admitted, laughing: “I guess I would say he fared really well because the issues he lost on were issues I would have been on the opposing side of him anyway,” among them, marijuana legalization.

Mullin wanted more done on economic development and said his biggest disappointment was “not giving the next governor the tools in the toolbox” needed to attract or retain jobs.

Several lawmakers pointed to the troubled health care exchange as an issue that had dragged down the governor and hurt his credibility. Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, said the governor suffered because he had gotten bad technology advice.

“It’s tough. I’m not trying to make excuses for Shumlin,” Campbell said.

Campbell, Pugh and others gave Shumlin high praise for his continued focus on the opiate addiction problem in Vermont. Pugh said Shumlin deserved credit for changing people’s view of addiction from being criminal behavior to having a health problem. Many police departments and medical service providers now carry an overdose reversal drug. Others touted a bill that will take a peek behind the curtain of prescription drug pricing.

Burlington Progressive Chris Pearson said any governor in his final term has waning influence.

“Did he have any wild successes? I don’t think so,” Pearson said. The governor’s credibility kept taking hits over time, he said, including problems with the health care exchange and questions whether his administration could have done more to prevent a “Ponzi-like” fraud two developers allegedly ran over Shumlin’s entire time in office, and allegedly several years prior, in a program overseen by the state.

“It might be just his time,” Pearson said, “but there’s a cumulative effect it has on legislators. And they were clearly not willing to stick up for him the same way they used to.”

Sears agreed. He said the governor’s unpopularity made it difficult to gain legislators’ support even on lesser issues.

“That’s what makes it difficult for Shumlin to get his agenda through, even on the little things like his Step-Up program that we kind of rescued at the last minute last night in the budget,” said Sears. “But, it’s even little things like that that have become challenging.”

“He walked away with a bunch of Nothing Burgers,” said one veteran lobbyist, tossing back the same term Shumlin used to dismiss early criticism of the problems at Vermont Health Connect.

Correction, May 9, 9:50 a.m.: The amount the state decreased benefits for some Reach Up families who were receiving SSI was  $125 per month, not $100 as was stated in an earlier version of this story.

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