With just five minutes of discussion Wednesday evening, the House Committee on Ways and Means broke a weeks-long deadlock over how to finance a package of health care reforms crafted by another panel.
As their colleagues debated a water quality bill on the House floor, committee members retreated to their room at 6 p.m. to sign off on a plan that would raise $18 million next year and $22 million the year after. It would do so primarily by creating a new, half-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
The vote was six to four, with one member absent. Committee members expect to approve the underlying bill, H. 481, on Thursday.
Rep. Carolyn Branagan (R-Georgia) summed up her frustration with the subject as the committee clerk called the roll: "I want to get rid of this thing," she said before casting her own vote. "Yes."
Wednesday's vote signaled a defeat for Gov. Peter Shumlin, who in his January budget address proposed raising $90 million for his own health care priorities by creating a 0.7 percent payroll tax. Like most legislators, members of the Ways and Means committee panned the plan and instead explored taxing everything from bottled water to candy to food sold in vending machines.
Even those who supported the plan, such as Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), said they weren't excited about it. Till had hoped to impose a two-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks — four times higher than what was adopted Wednesday — citing studies that have shown such taxes drive down obesity rates.
"That was very, very hard for me to accept," he said of the scaled-back sugar tax. "The data is much more clear at the higher levels — a penny and up — the health benefits we're going to get."
"This is why making legislation is a very, very ugly process," Till said.
Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), who chairs the committee, also supported a higher tax on sugary drinks. But she suggested the lower rate was just a first bite at the apple.
"When you look at tobacco taxes, we started much lower and over a period of years it actually changed the culture about smoking," she said. "So you start where you can start. I would like to see it higher, but I'm a realist, and this is what we were able to get."
The Vermont Retail and Grocers Association has fought such proposals for years. Its president, Jim Harrison, said Wednesday he was "very disappointed" in the committee's move.
"It will disproportionately impact low- and middle-income Vermonters, will hurt sales at many small stores by sending customers across our borders and make Vermont less affordable," he said. "New and increased excise taxes along with increases in our state's sales tax is the wrong way to go."
But Alliance for a Healthier Vermont campaign director Anthony Iarrapino called the bill "an important first step" toward reducing obesity and other preventable diseases.
"The urgent public health crisis fueled in part by heavy consumption of sugary drinks is serious and deserves a comprehensive response," said Iarrapino, whose group is devoted to creating the tax. "We’re not there yet, but we’re pleased that two House committees have recognized the negative health impact of these drinks and done the hard work to keep this fight moving forward."
Three weeks after it voted out a $49 million bill, that committee whittled down its priorities this week to a $20 million package. It would increase cost-sharing subsidies for low-income people who buy insurance through Vermont Health Connect, and it would increase reimbursements to doctors who treat Medicaid patients, but it would do far less to alleviate the so-called Medicaid cost-shift than what Shumlin proposed.
Whether the bill survives a vote on the House floor remains to be seen.
"This has a long way to go," says Rep. Jim Condon (D-Colchester), who voted against it Wednesday. "So we'll see what happens."