Republicans are not lining up in droves to challenge Gov. Peter Shumlin in this year’s election, and it may be in part because of Shumlin’s aptitude for putting a positive slant on almost anything that happens.
The end of the legislative session is always an occasion for boasting, and Shumlin was able to boast about a long list of accomplishments for the recently concluded two-year session. At the same time, he has managed to put off until later what may be his most difficult challenge, the creation of a new single-payer health care system. Also, he managed to escape mostly unscathed from the exercise in futility that occurred in this year under the rubric of education reform.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe was a credible potential Republican challenger for Shumlin, but she decided last week that this year was not the “right time.” In other words, it was not time for her to mount a losing campaign against a formidable Democratic opponent for the sake of providing her party with a standard bearer. The right time will presumably be when she has a better chance of winning.
Some of the initiatives pushed by Shumlin and passed by the Legislature include:
n Expanded access to pre-K education for 3- and 4-year-olds.
n Expanded programs in education, such as dual enrollment for high school students taking college courses; a new scholarship program for Vermont college graduates who work in the state after graduation.
n A broad court diversion program providing treatment instead of jail for some defendants accused of drug-related crimes.
n Expanded drug-treatment options.
n Economic development programs, such as the new Vermont Enterprise Incentive Fund and a boost to the Vermont Entrepreneurial Lending Program.
n A higher minimum wage.
n Expanded benefits for low-income Vermonters.
Shumlin frames these accomplishments in the context of a state that is growing. He is happy to say that Vermont has the second-lowest unemployment rate in the nation. Manufacturing is on the rebound.
Shumlin is all about the good news. He has perfected the skill of sliding away from the bad news or turning it to his advantage. Thus, Tropical Storm Irene, the biggest disaster to the hit the state in decades, was a story of the resilience of Vermonters. Shumlin even used the term Vermont Strong as the name of his new scholarship program.
The rhetorical miasma of property taxes and education reform threatened to engulf him, but he managed to evade responsibility either for the introduction of the House’s misbegotten school consolidation bill or for its failure. The bill gave legislators an opportunity to talk about schools and to complain about taxes while creating a bill with little prospect of passage.
The long-term financial health of the state remains an open question, including projections for future budgets and for the demands of the state’s retirement programs. As the economy improves, these problems may well diminish.
Meanwhile, crunch time is approaching for health care. Next year, Shumlin and the new Legislature will have to start talking about real numbers and real tax options to raise the money for the new single-payer system that will be designed to replace our current insurance-based system with a single, comprehensive program overseen by the state.
Whatever tax is raised to cover hundreds of millions of dollars in health care expenses will be offset by the disappearance of health care premiums, which now take a huge bite out of the incomes of employers and employees. It makes sense, but it will be a hard sell. Shumlin will have to maintain a high degree of credibility with the public so that it trusts him and the state to take on that responsibility.
The Legislature did much of Shumlin’s bidding this year, but stood up to him on some issues, raising taxes on cigarettes rather than health care, for example. It showed that, contrary to Shumlin’s belief, it is possible to legislate common sense, passing a bar on the use of hand-held devices by drivers.
Incidentally, House Speaker Shap Smith, who is said to be contemplating retirement from the House, ought to think twice about leaving his post at this crucial juncture in the development of health care reform. He is a capable and well-liked public servant with a future in Vermont politics, if he wants it. But Shumlin will need all the help he can get in guiding single-payer through the process. It would be useful to have someone with experience beyond that of a neophyte in the speaker’s chair.
Scheuermann knows what a challenge any Republican will face in November. There are others considering a run, but despite a perceptible decline in Shumlin’s favorability ratings seen in recent polling, he will be a hard man to beat.