Sure, Gov. Peter Shumlin unveiled a $5.3 billion budget proposal Thursday. And he disclosed the $1.6 billion price tag of his single-payer health care plan. And his transportation secretary outlined a $28 million new gas tax.
But the question on many people's minds at the Statehouse was this:
What the hell is a "break-open ticket?"
For those who don't hang out at the local American Legion hall Saturday nights, break-open tickets are little scratch-off, lottery-like cards sold by nonprofit organizations. And believe it or not, Vermonters buy somewhere between 135 and 224 million of them a year, the Shumlin administration says.
In his budget address to a joint session of the legislature Thursday, Shumlin proposed slapping a ten percent tax on the tickets, which he said would raise $17 million for low-income heating assistance, home weatherization and clean energy development.
"The overall reaction in the audience was 'break-away what?'" said Senate Finance Chairman Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), butchering the name of the tickets Shumlin hopes to tax.
(Pictured at left, Ashe investigating a sample break-open ticket provided by the Department of Liquor Control at a Senate Finance Committee meeting Thursday afternoon.)
That the governor managed to identify a $17 million source of revenue half the Statehouse had never heard of provided legislators a brief moment of levity as they stared down a budgeting process filled with bleak choices.
Beyond break-open tickets, Shumlin's third budget address exposed two great contradictions in his professed approach to governing:
First, the governor loves to say he gets tough things done. But on two of the toughest questions of the day — how to finance his proposed single-payer health care plan and how to plug a $36.5 million hole in the transportation fund — Shumlin essentially punted to the legislature.
Rather than offer a specific health care financing proposal, as the legislature directed the administration to do in 2011, Team Shumlin instead served up a menu of options from which lawmakers could pick and choose.
"The reality is it's not a financing plan. Let's be honest. It just isn't," said House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville). "It's a suite of options of how you might put something together to draw up a financing plan."
While Smith said he wasn't too concerned about the lack of specificity — the plan won't be implemented until 2017, after all — single-payer opponents were quick to jump on Shummy's dodge.
"At first blush, the report raises more questions than it answers," Vermonters for Health Care Freedom executive director Jeff Wennberg said in a statement. "But one thing is very clear: Gov. Shumlin is avoiding the question of funding single payer as though it were the political grim reaper."
As for the transportation fund, Shumlin once again promised during his budget address to avoid raising broad-based taxes. While he noted that Vermont had to come up with $36.5 million in funding this year to keep the state from losing out on $40 million in federal highway funds, Shumlin declined to say during his speech just how he'd achieve that goal. In a press briefing before he took the podium, top administration officials also declined to say.
But as soon as the budget address was over, Shumlin's transporation secretary, Brian Searles, wandered on over to the House Transportation Committee to unveil — wait for it — a transportation funding plan that includes new gas taxes.
The sheisty timing made clear that while Shumlin may be willing to get tough things done, he's not willing to announce tough decisions to a packed assembly of legislators and reporters. He'd rather dispatch a deputy to bear the bad news once the lights are out and the cameras off.
The second great contradiction of the governor's budget address was this: Shumlin is totally psyched when Vermont leads the nation in providing health care for its citizens, ensuring marriage equality and investing in renewable energy. But he's apparently embarrassed that Vermont is leading the way in providing a safety net for its poorest residents.
Twice, Shumlin chided the state for its progressive tax policies and benefits programs, suggesting Vermont would be better off moving back to the middle of the pack.
Doubling-down on his widely-panned suggestion to scale back the state's match to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit in favor of investing $17 million in childcare subsidies, Shumlin noted that 27 other states contribute no match and that Vermont is near the front of the line in the amount of its state match.
"With the second-richest Earned Income Tax Credit in America, we have to ask ourselves: Is a once-a-year check from the state — a check that has increased 49 percent in the past few years — the best help we can offer to lower-income Vermonters who are struggling to stay in the workforce?" Shumlin asked.
Likewise, in proposing to cap at five years the amount of time unemployed Vermonters can access Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits — called "Reach Up" in Vermont — Shumlin noted the state's comparative generosity.
"It might surprise most Vermonters to learn that Vermont is the only state in the country that extends Reach Up benefits without interruption to the entire household for a lifetime," he said. "In contrast to Vermont, forty-six states limit assistance to five years or fewer, and all of our neighbors have limitations either in the time period or cash benefit of their welfare programs."
Summoning his inner-Bill Clinton, Shumlin tacked to the center and urged the state to do away with the welfare state in Vermont.
"It takes courage to say it, but say it we must: Benefits for Vermonters who are able to work must be temporary, not timeless," he said. "It is long past time for Vermont to reform our welfare system from one that discourages work to one that makes prosperity achievable for all Vermont families, including those living in poverty."
The Progressive reaction to Shumlin's proposals was cutting.
"To give people the impression that too many Vermonters are on welfare is, I think, inappropriate," said Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington). "We're always willing to ask low-income people to do more, but we're never willing to ask wealthy people to do more."
Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), who chairs the House Progressive Caucus, agreed.
"Shumlin calls it his state budget. I call it a path to poverty," Pearson said, accusing the governor of funding his budget with "Tea Party schemes."
Not everybody was so peeved.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) said he credited the administration for "looking for creative ways to fund the shortfall, instead of going to the easy pickings of the sales tax and income tax."
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans sounded like they'd made a new best friend.
"For the most part, we were pleasantly surprised," said Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), the House minority leader. "We're glad to see the governor is going to address welfare reform."
Turner's counterpart in the upper chamber, Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), echoed the very same words.
"We are pleasantly surprised," he said.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.