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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

With New Faces And Old Issues, 2015 Legislative Session Gets Underway

Angela Evancie
Speaking on the first day of the 2015 legislative session, Morristown Rep. Shap Smith, newly elected to his fourth term as House Speaker, urged his fellow lawmakers to tackle the politically difficult task of overhauling the state's education system.

Lawmakers returned to the Statehouse Wednesday to begin a 2015 legislative session that will feature divisive debates over issues like property taxes, the state budget, and health care reform.

Even on day one, lawmakers of all stripes were already jockeying for position.

After unanimously winning election to a fourth term as speaker of the House, Morristown Rep. Shap Smith urged his fellow lawmakers to press forward with the politically difficult task of overhauling the state’s education system.

Smith’s speech served as the unofficial kickoff to a two-year legislative biennium in which the speaker will look for ways to curb rising property taxes that many blame for Democratic losses in the House and Senate in the November elections.

While the seven-term Democrat has yet to offer any specific plans for how to overhaul a public school system in which costs are rising as student enrollment declines, Smith made clear Wednesday that education reform will be his chief focus in 2014.

“I think that we have to figure out a way to hold costs down on a per pupil basis,” Smith said in a news conference after his speech.

Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
House representatives including Mollie Burke (P-Windham) and Chris Pearson (P-Chittenden) take the oath of office at the Statehouse on Jan. 7.

Smith said the plight of the middle class is deepening, and that lawmakers’ efforts should focus on improving the lot of small businesses and working class residents.

“They hear about rising stock prices, increased economic growth and low unemployment rates. But many of them do not feel the impact in their own pocketbooks,” Smith said. “Too many of our neighbors feel pinched, plain and simple.”

Precisely how to improve the economic lot of Vermonters, of course, will become a matter of partisan debate. And as Shap Smith, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Senate President John Campbell preach the gospel of affordability, Republicans say Democrats’ newfound focus on property taxes offers far too little, and comes way too late.

Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
The most closely watched event of the opening week comes Thursday morning, when House and Senate lawmakers will elect a governor. While Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to win that vote, Republican challenger Scott Milne, who got about 2,400 votes fewer than Shumlin in the November election, has been encouraging lawmakers to pick him.

House Minority Leader Don Turner and his Republican caucus, which gained nine seats this year, says its “Freedom and Unity” agenda offers a surer solution to the state economic woes than anything Democrats have trotted out.

“We have to rein in state spending without raising taxes and revenue. We have to address education costs and property taxes” Turner said. “We have to deal with health care and the mandates and so on, and we have to make it more accessible and more affordable.”

The “Freedom and Unity” plan will, among other things, look to slow growth in the state budget, give businesses greater flexibility when it comes to buying health insurance, and end state subsidies to small school districts.

Smith says the fiscal year 2016 budget must also be sensitive to the difficult financial realities facing taxpayers. But he says lawmakers must simultaneously reinforce a social safety net on which Vermonters increasingly rely.

Smith said health care reform will remain a top priority in the Legislature, despite Gov. Peter Shumlin’s decision to abandon his pursuit of a single-payer health care system. While lawmakers will no longer consider a plan to replace private premiums with public financing, Smith says lawmakers “must address the rising costs of health care … this session, this biennium.”

Smith says he’s open to the possibility of increasing the amount of money state government pays doctors for taking care of patients on Medicaid. Low reimbursement rates have led to what’s known as the “cost shift,” in which hospitals and other providers jack up rates on private insurers in order to offset losses incurred when they care for poorer patients.

Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement would require significant new revenues, which Smith has yet to identify. But he says increased reimbursements might lead to lower insurance rates, thereby benefiting businesses and residents.

“If we can move forward with something that will address the cost shift and hold premium increases in line, I think that that would be a real success,” Smith said.

Smith also said he wants to see whether lawmakers can provide financial help to some of the tens of thousands of Vermonters who are paying more for insurance in the exchange than they were in Catamount Health, the subsidized insurance program that came to an end last year.

“We know that there were some people who had some pretty significantly difficult times when they moved to the exchange because of the change in the cost share arrangement,” Smith said.

Late Thursday morning, Smith announced committee assignments for the coming biennium, and the new committee rosters are in some cases wildly different from the old ones. The House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, for example, has seven new members. Other committees, meanwhile, will have new chairs. Hinesburg Rep. Bill Lippert, a Democrat, will chair the House Committee on Health Care; Bristol Rep. David Sharpe, a Democrat, will head the Education Committee; and Grand Isle Rep. Mitzi Johnson, also a Democrat, will chair appropriations.

All in all, Don Turner says he’s happy with Republicans’ committee placements. Turner says Republicans have more vice-chairmanships than last year – including one on the education committee – and he says they have increased their numbers on some key committees, like House Health Care.

The most closely watched event of the opening week will come on Thursday morning, when House and Senate lawmakers will cast votes for governor. While Shumlin received the most votes in November, he did not win a majority. And in such cases, the Vermont Constitution dictates that the Legislature decide the race.

Republican challenger Scott Milne is now actively campaigning for votes in that race, and says he’s spent “a few hundred dollars” on social media advertising in the last week or so. Milne’s own efforts are in addition to the tens of thousands of dollars being spent by a new group that began airing pro-Milne television advertisements just before the new year. Those advertisements have, according to several lawmakers, spawned an extraordinary number of constituent calls from Vermonters who want to see the Legislature seize on the vote to dispatch with Shumlin.

Milne was in the Statehouse Wednesday, to watch his father, Don, sworn in as House clerk. But Milne says he was working votes while there.

The winner of that election – Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the Legislature, and Shumlin is expected to prevail – will deliver an inaugural address Thursday afternoon.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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