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The Emperor’s New Bros: Can Shumlin Sell Single-Payer to the Vermont Legislature?

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Peter Shumlin - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin tried to liven up a staid crowd of supporters last month by summoning his inner Barack Obama.

"Are you fired up?" he yelled, his nasal voice mimicking the president's familiar inflection. "Come on!"

Dressed in a charcoal suit, blue shirt and pink tie, Shumlin stood at a wooden podium on the third floor of Burlington's Main Street Landing, squinting through a narrow band of afternoon sunlight. He was there for the formality of all formalities: the official kickoff of a reelection campaign that had been under way for months and whose successful conclusion was all but preordained.

"Now, listen: I can't do this without you," he said. "Just as we as a state must say yes to progress, I need you to say yes to working hard over the next two months! Can I count on you to join me in knocking on doors all over the state? Are you in?"

Standing before him was much of Montpelier officialdom: cabinet secretaries, commissioners, legislators, lobbyists and assorted political muckety-mucks. Clad in business casual, they clapped politely, though it was difficult to picture any of them schlepping from door to door on the governor's behalf.

"Can I count on you to stuff envelopes and to make phone call after phone call after phone call to help get out our voters?" he yelled. "Are you in on that?!"

Shumlin's rhetoric was that of a candidate trailing in the polls, but his demeanor betrayed a certain bored confidence. This was not the scrappy state senator who overcame long odds in 2010 to defeat four fellow Democrats and a Republican lieutenant governor to take the state's top office. It was a man who surely realized that the only politician capable of derailing his ride to a third term was himself.

Just once in his 15-minute announcement did Shumlin brush aside the boilerplate and sound a convincing call that he was the "bold" leader he kept saying he was. Acknowledging Vermont Health Care for All founder Deb Richter, who stood in the sea of supporters, Shumlin renewed his pledge to create "the nation's first single-payer health care system."

"I was elected to get tough things done, and this may well be the toughest," he declared. "But I will not rest until it is done."

For years, Montpelier's chattering classes have openly questioned whether Shumlin would really follow through on his 2010 campaign commitment to build a universal, publicly financed health care system. Would he really buck the Chittenden County business elite, to whom he has grown increasingly close, in order to satisfy a liberal base whose support he has come to take for granted? Would he risk severe economic dislocation to grasp the golden ring of progressive governance?

For a moment, at least, the politician known for equivocation sounded resolute.

It didn't last.

Two days later, Shumlin modulated his message in an interview with Vermont Public Radio's Bob Kinzel. Calling himself "one of the most pro-business, anti-tax governors that you've seen in a long time," he vowed that he would halt his drive toward single-payer if he determined it would hurt the economy.

"If we come up with a financing plan that doesn't grow jobs, economic opportunity and make Vermont more prosperous, trust me, we're not gonna do it," he said.

It wasn't the first time Shumlin had issued such a caveat. But his otherwise listless Republican opponent, Pomfret businessman Scott Milne, quickly seized on it as evidence of inconsistency.

"You're totally doubling down on single-payer on Tuesday when you're with your Democratic [supporters]," Milne said at a VPR debate later that month. "Then you're on a statewide radio program three days later [saying], 'I'm not going to go forward with it unless it's going to be good for the economy.'"

So which one is it? Will Shumlin take the biggest risk of his 24-year political career and drive ahead with single-payer? Or will he find a way to blame the legislature, the business community or the federal government for its demise and simply walk away?

"He could blame it on a million things," says Burlington restaurateur Al Gobeille, who oversees the state's reforms as chairman of the Green Mountain Care Board. "But every time I've met with him about health care reform, he has never wavered from what he wants to do. And I, at times, have actually been shocked by it. He doesn't joke about wavering. He doesn't gossip about wavering. He doesn't waver."

More to the point, does Shumlin have what it takes to get the job done?

In interviews with some two dozen legislators, lobbyists, activists, administration officials and political observers, many said they wouldn't bet against the governor's legendary political acumen.

"If anybody has the skills," says House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown), "it would be Peter Shumlin."

But others questioned whether, after four years on the job, he still has the juice to achieve what no other governor has. Though he's unlikely to lose to Milne or Libertarian candidate Dan Feliciano next month, recent polling suggests his public approval has declined and he may struggle to crack the symbolic 50 percent threshold.

More ominously, Statehouse insiders say he's lost the trust of many legislators — just when he needs them the most. To sign single-payer into law, he'll have to persuade them to put their own political careers on the line by raising roughly $2 billion in new taxes.

The question is whether they'll trust him to lead the way.

Tough Things Done

Shumlin talks with campaign manager Scott Coriell - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Shumlin talks with campaign manager Scott Coriell

When he first ran for governor four years ago, Shumlin vowed to "get tough things done."

The campaign slogan was intended to distinguish the 54-year-old senate president from his four Democratic rivals by reminding voters of his impressive legislative accomplishments. In a single biennium, the Putney businessman had led the charge to legalize gay marriage, deny Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant a license to operate and override Douglas' veto of the 2010 budget.

The slogan "was the result of looking at his record and what he wanted to get done in the future," recalls Alex MacLean, who managed Shumlin's first two gubernatorial campaigns and became his deputy chief of staff.

In the Senate, Shumlin had earned a reputation for being "a little cocky," as his friend and ally, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), puts it. Others, including former Republican governor Jim Douglas, recall his tenure in less charitable terms.

"No matter what he said, it was likely to change in the next conversation," Douglas wrote in a memoir released this September. "I have no idea what really motivates him."

Shumlin's slogan seemed to send the signal that you didn't have to like the guy, but you could count on him to finish the job — including defeating the Republican nominee: then-lieutenant governor Brian Dubie.

In his first term as governor, Shumlin did, indeed, get tough things done. With the passage of Act 48, he established the Green Mountain Care Board and set the state on course toward single-payer. When Tropical Storm Irene inundated central and southern Vermont, he earned high marks for spearheading the state's recovery.

"I think those were his finest moments as governor," says Doug Racine, the former lieutenant governor and state senator who narrowly lost to Shumlin in the 2010 primary. "You could see he was personally moved by what he saw — and he made a huge commitment on the part of his administration to fix things."

He also became the state's biggest cheerleader, vowing to make post-Irene Vermont "stronger than ever before."

"People like that sort of cocky bravado, you know? Howard Dean talked the same way. Dick Snelling talked that way too," Racine says, referring to Shumlin's gubernatorial predecessors.

After Shumlin handily defeated then-senator Randy Brock in the 2012 election, he and the Democratic super-majority checked the box on a host of long-sought liberal priorities. In just two years, they decriminalized marijuana, legalized physician-assisted suicide, granted drivers' licenses to noncitizens, unionized home health care workers and daycare providers, expanded net metering, mandated GMO labeling, and raised the minimum wage.

And yet, somehow, Shumlin simultaneously managed to alienate liberal legislators of his own party.

In his second inaugural and budget addresses in early 2013, the governor employed Reaganesque language to pitch cuts to the Reach Up welfare program and the Earned Income Tax Credit. His fellow Democrats revolted — not just at the substance of his agenda, but at his failure to consult with them about the proposals.

By the end of the session, the governor found himself in a standoff with legislative leaders over whether to make progressive tweaks to the tax code. Tensions became so inflamed that, even after Shumlin vowed to veto the bill, his Democratic allies nearly forced him to carry out his threat.

To a certain extent, Shumlin appears to relish his differences with legislative liberals. He happily chides them for their profligate ways, vowing at nearly every campaign stop to "match Montpelier's appetite for spending with Vermonters' ability to pay." Like Dean, he uses them as a foil to establish himself as a fiscal conservative.

Among his proudest accomplishments, he often notes, is having balanced four tight budgets without raising what he defines as "broad-based" taxes: those targeting income, sales, rooms and meals.

Even Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), one of the governor's sharpest critics, credits Shumlin with restraining the more progressive elements of his party.

"If we had a Republican governor in there, the left side of the party would have passed legislation that would have been more expensive for taxpayers," she says. "But Democrats don't want to see a public split like that, so they make sure not to put anything like that on Shumlin's desk."

Implicit in the governor's resistance to tax hikes is an acknowledgement that he will have to raise revenue dramatically to pay for his health care overhaul. He does not want to wear voters out before he asks them to pay for his signature policy priority.

But six years after the 2008 financial crisis drained state coffers, Shumlin's budget writers are preparing for another major shortfall. Even after this summer's mid-year cuts, state economists are anticipating a $100 million hole in next year's budget. That has many progressive advocates alarmed.

"We already have an anemic state government that is not able to deliver the services it is promising to Vermonters and Vermonters need and want," says Paul Cillo, a former House majority leader who now heads the left-leaning Public Assets Institute. "The challenge to the governor and the legislature is: Are we going to back off on our commitment to Vermonters or are we going to find the money to provide the services they actually want?"

Add to that a growing unease over ever-rising property taxes and Shumlin may find himself with far more on his plate next year than single-payer.

"Historically, Vermont can solve a problem, whether it's [the 1965 legislative] reapportionment, Irene, marriage or civil unions," says Steve Terry, a retired reporter and corporate consultant. "But I don't recall a time when we've been able to solve so many issues with such huge price tags."

Lipstick on a Pig

Shumlin chats with campaign staffers at WCAX-TV - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Shumlin chats with campaign staffers at WCAX-TV

Two years after they dusted off the "get tough things done" slogan for his 2012 reelection campaign, Shumlin's advisers appear to be giving it a rest. And for good reason: He still hasn't gotten the toughest assignment of his second term — fixing the state's broken health insurance exchange — done.

Shumlin himself says his "biggest regret, unconditionally, is the frustrating rollout of the website for the Affordable Care Act." It has dogged him since September 2013, when his administration first revealed that the exchange, called Vermont Health Connect, would not be prepared to accept electronic payments when it launched the next month.

Shumlin, who enjoys goading reporters as much as he does legislators, responded to that news at a Montpelier press conference by attacking the messenger.

"I was amazed that we could make a headline out of that fact, to be honest with you," he lectured reporters at the time. "The fact of the matter is, that's a nothing-burger."

Few Vermont politicians can match Shumlin's quick wit and verbal acuity — skills honed, he has said, to compensate for his dyslexia. But when his rhetoric fails to match reality — as it has with Vermont Health Connect — his tongue tends to get him in trouble.

MacLean says that charge isn't quite fair.

"People who don't agree with his policies spin his articulateness to say you can't trust him, and I don't think that's a fair representation," she says.

"Nothing-burger" or not, the Vermont Health Connect headlines kept coming. Users struggled with the website's interface, while small businesses couldn't navigate it at all. In November, Shumlin extended the deadline to enroll and allowed businesses to bypass the website completely.

With every new assurance from the governor came another problem. Over the spring and summer, thousands of Vermonters trying to update basic information on the website became stuck in an endless queue. After the state failed to conform to new security protocols, the feds forced it offline in September — just seven weeks before Election Day.

"There's not even lipstick to put on that pig," says Tom Torti, who served in the Dean and Douglas administrations and now runs the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.

To be sure, Vermont's difficulties complying with Obamacare's condensed timelines and sisyphean mandates were not unique to the state. And much of the blame can fairly be laid at the feet of CGI, the Virginia-based contractor whose poor performance building Vermont's website finally led to its dismissal in August.

"The bottom line for me is that CGI just did not deliver," says Racine, who served as Shumlin's Agency of Human Services secretary until that same month.

But Hamilton Davis, a health care analyst and veteran Vermont journalist, says the episode speaks volumes about the governor's management style.

"Shumlin wasn't paying attention. He really didn't care about the exchange because, when you step back from it, the exchange wasn't his," Davis says, explaining that the governor was more invested in his own single-payer plans than Obama's health care reforms. "Even when he put his eye back on it, it took him a year to get a handle on it — way, way, way too long."

The exchange's management team — initially led by Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson and Deputy Commissioner Lindsey Tucker — was versed in policy, not operations. And, according to an August report by Optum, they "ceded ownership" of the project to the CGI.

Contributing to the chaos, Racine says, was the fact that Larson reported to an evolving cast of overseers in the governor's office. Racine, nominally Larson's boss, was cut out of the chain of command.

"It hasn't been consistent," the ex-secretary says of Vermont Health Connect's organizational chart. "When it came to crisis management, it was as much about management of the project as it was management of the bad news that was out there."

The way Milne sees it, Shumlin was distracted from the website's woes by his frequent travels. Between January 2013 and September 2014, the governor spent 141.5 days — or nearly a quarter of his second term — outside Vermont. As Seven Days reported last month, Shumlin spent 58.5 of those days tending to political affairs as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, and 55 of them on vacation.

Former commerce secretary Lawrence Miller, who took over Shumlin's health care programs in June, defends the governor's management style. But he has an equally troubling explanation for why the boss didn't take action sooner: Early reports from a consultant indicating that Vermont Health Connect wouldn't be ready by its launch date simply never made it to Shumlin's desk.

"It doesn't appear he was ever really getting the full story," Miller says.

Even Shumlin admits his administration failed to manage the project.

"Absolutely. I mean, I don't know how you — the answer is yes," the governor says. "When something doesn't do what you expect it to do, it's a failure."

Team of Rivals

The WCAX-TV debate - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • The WCAX-TV debate

Two weeks ago, Racine contemplated his newfound freedom over a glass of juice at Burlington's Muddy Waters. These days, he said, he's stacking wood, cleaning out his basement — and looking for a new job.

A month earlier, Shumlin's top aides, chief of staff Liz Miller and Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding, summoned him to the governor's office at the end of a Monday to tell him he was fired.

Shumlin's spokeswoman, Sue Allen, tried her best to spin the news, writing in a press release the next morning that Racine would be "stepping down" as secretary. Later that day, after flying to Rutland in the state-owned Cessna 182, Shumlin addressed the leadership change at press conference held, somewhat fittingly, at a landfill. But he refused to characterize the nature of Racine's departure, nor why he felt it was "time for a different kind of leadership."

Racine, who quickly told reporters he'd been fired, still sounds steamed that Shumlin didn't deliver the news himself.

"I would've talked to the man, OK?" he said. "If he had been thinking he wanted to make a change because of my performance in some way or my style or whatever it was, I would've liked to have had the opportunity to hear that from him, so we could work on it."

All Racine got was a brief phone call from the governor after Miller and Spaulding cut him loose. Remarkably, Racine alleges, it was the first time they had spoken outside of group meetings since May 2013.

"I had not had a one-on-one conversation with him in a year," Racine said. "That, to me, was the most disturbing part of my work in the administration: the lack of contact."

Shumlin denies the charge — somewhat.

"We were in meetings consistently together; I mean, like, every other week — every week," the governor says. "I often don't get to sit down individually with my secretaries, but they're always there with me doing work."

In off-the-record comments, several people who work closely with the administration characterized Shumlin as increasingly disengaged from the day-to-day workings of government.

"He's the most remote governor we've ever had," Davis says.

Others, such as Speaker Smith, say he's plenty focused — at least, on his top priorities.

"I think that he has kept his eye on the ball on things that he wants to do," Smith says, "which is health care, putting forward balanced budgets and trying to do the kind of economic development that he thinks is going to work for the long-term benefit of the state."

Shumlin's advisers paint a different picture than his critics do.

"There's never been a governor who's as connected as Peter Shumlin," Spaulding says. "Whether it's cellphone or texting or email, he does it all the time. Whether it's legislators or business or labor people, environmentalists, he's in touch with everybody."

As in any administration approaching its fifth year, several key members of Shumlin's team have moved on or are about to do so — including MacLean, former chief of staff Bill Lofy and legislative liaison Louis Porter.

Most consequentially, Spaulding announced last month that he'd be leaving early next year to become chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges. A former state treasurer and longtime senate colleague of Shumlin's, Spaulding has come to be regarded as almost a co-governor.

Shumlin's closest remaining advisers on the fifth floor of the Pavilion State Office Building include Liz Miller, an attorney and former Department of Public Service secretary, and Lawrence Miller, who founded Otter Creek Brewing and now serves as the governor's all-purpose fixer.

Outside of state government, Shumlin's cultivated a coterie of top business leaders and donors who were equally at home in the Douglas administration, including Jay Peak president Bill Stenger; the Chittenden County developers Bobby Miller, Jeff Davis and Ernie Pomerleau; and the Burlington power brokers David Coates and Harlan Sylvester.

"On certain issues, it's still the same guys — and I used the word 'guys' advisedly — calling the shots behind the scenes," says one Montpelier insider.

When Shumlin took office in January 2011, he made much of the fact that he'd hired three of his four Democratic gubernatorial opponents: Racine as AHS secretary, Deb Markowitz as Agency of Natural Resources secretary and Susan Bartlett as "special assistant."

These days, none in his "team of rivals" appears particularly close to the governor. But Markowitz says she has had a different experience than Racine.

"I have to say: I've been so incredibly supported by the governor in everything I've done," she says. "We're in constant communication."

The same can't be said of state legislators, who routinely grouse that they've been left out of the loop — particularly regarding Shumlin's single-payer plans. There's a good reason for that: The governor clearly wants to release them on his own schedule — after the election, his critics note — and legislators would be likely to spill the beans.

That happened last spring, Spaulding says, when he shared some preliminary ideas with retiring Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham), who quickly broadcast them on the Senate floor.

"When you have informal conversations, sometimes it's hard to try out ideas with people and not have them take those as your specific proposal," Spaulding says. "Like, I thought I had some informal conversations with Peter Galbraith and then he's out saying, 'Here's what the governor's plan is.'"

But according to Racine, leaving out legislators could be an even bigger mistake.

"My advice would be that there needs to be a concerted effort to make legislators part of the process, so that they are part of the team," he says. "You want to make sure that their first chance to talk isn't when they have to vote — or when somebody figures out they aren't entirely on board."

Smokin' It

Shumlin and Scott Milne - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Shumlin and Scott Milne

Shumlin tried to keep a straight face last Wednesday afternoon as his Republican rival, Scott Milne, struggled to explain his position on physician-assisted suicide.

The governor was sandwiched between Milne and Liberty Union candidate Peter Diamondstone at the Burlington Free Press' "Innovation Incubator," a drab conference room on the third floor of the Burlington Town Center. They were there for the third debate of the gubernatorial campaign.

Asked by Free Press reporter Terri Hallenbeck whether he'd support changes to Vermont's year-and-a-half-old law allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, Milne bobbed and weaved.

"One of the principles upon which I will govern and upon which I founded my campaign is that the more locally decisions can be made, the better they are," he said. "If it's important to you, you should talk to your legislator —"

"But what about you?" Hallenbeck interjected. "You'd have to sign the bill."

"I'll sign a bill that comes from the legislature, with changes or with repeal," he said.

"No matter what it says?" Hallenbeck asked.

"Yes," Milne said.

"Or with repeal?" Shumlin repeated, appearing incredulous.

"Yes," Milne said.

Shumlin looked across the room at me and cocked his head, as if to say, "Did you hear that?"

Three minutes later, Milne was waffling again — this time on whether he'd sign a bill legalizing marijuana.

"I do not think it's a good idea to rush into it. I think it's a train that's coming our way," the Pomfret businessman said. "What I would urge Vermonters to do is talk to your legislators. I'm not encouraging it, but if I get a bill, I'll sign it."

Shumlin looked my way again. When he saw me crack a slight smile at Milne's wishy-washy answer, he flashed an enormous grin at me. The consummate politician had turned on the charm and was working the room, even as he parried questions in a debate.

Shumlin's magnetism often draws comparisons to that of Bill Clinton. He feeds off the energy of friends and strangers alike, draping an arm around a shoulder or coming in for a close chat. He is infamous for his aggressive, double-armed handshakes, during which he grabs the opposing elbow or forearm with his left hand and doesn't let go.

"He's got this personal charm thing where you're rolling your eyes even as you're melting into his arms," says one longtime ally. "But you also know you can't trust him."

Trust became a serious issue for Shumlin in May 2013, when a real estate deal with his East Montpelier neighbor captivated the Statehouse press corps. Faced with a looming tax sale, Jeremy Dodge had agreed the previous fall to sell his 16-acre property to Shumlin for $58,000, even though it was assessed at $233,700.

Dodge, an ex-con with an eighth-grade education, came to regret the deal he struck without an attorney. As public pressure mounted, the governor agreed to reverse the sale and return the property to Dodge.

"He thought he was helping the guy out," Spaulding says, though he concedes, "It didn't come across that way, and maybe it wasn't the smartest thing he ever did."

Like several of Shumlin's advisers, Spaulding says there's a private side of the governor that the public — and the press — rarely sees.

"He is one of the sweetest, most generous, most compassionate people I know," the secretary says.

Shumlin's interpersonal skills have made him "a master" of the state's political scene over the years, says Torti, the chamber of commerce chief, who has known the governor since the mid-1980s.

"What I think you get with Gov. Shumlin sometimes is a candor and a wit that is not often expected from elected officials," Torti says. "Some people don't like his glibness. To that I say, 'So what?' He's glib. He's funny. Some days you wanna kill him. Some days you wanna hug him. And some hours you flip-flop within 60 minutes."

Equally infuriating to some supporters is his seeming malleability on the issues. One moment, he'll argue that mandating GMO labeling is a bad idea; the next, he'll take credit for the mandate in a campaign ad. Behind the scenes, he'll try to kill a bill banning certain toxic chemicals, but when a modified version passes, he'll hold a signing ceremony trumpeting it.

"He's a pragmatist," says Anthony Iarrapino, who recently left the Conservation Law Foundation to lobby for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. "As an advocate — somebody who's really clear on what the right answer is — that flexibility can be maddening."

To Torti, that's just the art of negotiation and compromise — skills Shumlin has in spades.

"One of the things I have always appreciated about him is you know where he stands both today and where he's going to be in the end," Torti says. "With a wink and a nod, you know what his position is and is going to be."

Hours after last week's Free Press forum, Shumlin worked the front lobby of WCAX-TV's South Burlington studio before the station's live debate. He chatted up reporters, posed for photos and absorbed the praise of Andrew Champagne, a Democratic Party activist who told the governor he was going to "smoke" Milne during the debate.

"I'm gonna smoke it," Shumlin said, stretching his shoulders and walking with a bounce in his step. "They're telling me to be Zen."

Half an hour into the broadcast, WCAX cut to the first two-minute commercial break. Shumlin exchanged a private word with Milne and then beelined to a small audience consisting of Champlain College students, Milne's family, Shumlin's own supporters and two reporters.

He needed to get in some glad-handing.

"How we doing, team?" the governor said, flashing a double-thumbs-up.

"How we doing?" he repeated. "Riveting stuff."

The governor chatted briefly with his campaign manager, Scott Coriell, before a producer warned him he had 30 seconds to return to the podium.

At the end of the debate, Shumlin worked his way back to the chairs where the audience had been seated and introduced himself to the Champlain students. He clasped one young blonde's right hand with his, then traced a line down her forearm with his left pointer finger, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world to do.

The Skinny

Vermont's mayors endorse Shumlin at Burlington City Hall
  • Vermont's mayors endorse Shumlin at Burlington City Hall

Few governors have staked so much on a single policy proposal as Shumlin has on single-payer. That's why it's hard to see him walking away before he can claim at least a partial victory.

"He's really invested way too much into this to not move forward," says Peter Sterling, who runs the pro-single-payer advocacy group Vermont Leads.

But the barriers to success are considerable — and they're not just political.

According to Lawrence Miller, "The single biggest risk factor is the federal government's participation."

In order to move ahead with Shumlin's plan, the state will have to secure a waiver from the feds that would allow it to bypass many of the strictures of the Affordable Care Act and to use Obamacare cash to fund the new system.

Three weeks ago, Shumlin and several top advisers met with Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell in Washington, D.C., to discuss the prospect. Gobeille, who attended the meeting, says HHS officials "committed to exploring" the waiver, "but there wasn't anybody in the room acting like these things are easy."

Nor will it be easy to convince leaders of Vermont's business community, who have as much sway with legislative leaders as they do with Shumlin.

"I think they're on the fence," says Coates, who has advised the last four governors and who heads a business advisory group charged with counseling Shumlin on how to finance the health care overhaul. "It's a wait and see. I think that's the whole state."

Specifically, they're waiting to see what combination of tax hikes Shumlin proposes to fund the $2 billion system. The governor blew off a statutory deadline to present a plan in January 2013 and a self-imposed one last spring. While many have suggested the delay was a political ploy to avoid repercussions at the ballot box, Shumlin maintains it wasn't.

"I wish that were true," he says. "We do not have it figured out yet. We're working really hard to get it right."

Of course, there are only so many ways to raise $2 billion in revenue. Most observers believe the governor will pitch a combination of sources that relies heavily on employer and employee payroll taxes.

Depending on how Shumlin's plan is formulated, Gobeille says, opposition could come from unexpected places. Asked what the biggest threat to single-payer might be, he pauses and says, "Skinny Pancake," referring to the Burlington and Montpelier crêpe shops.

"That guy has done every single thing 'Vermont,'" Gobeille says, referring to co-founder Benjy Adler. "If the tax is done in a way that's going to put him out of business, how can that happen? Vermont isn't going to do that to Vermont."

Adler, who sounds uninterested in becoming a political football, says he would love to see single-payer succeed.

"We're all for universal health care," he says. "If we can come up with a system that works, we'll definitely support it."

But Adler estimates that an employer payroll tax on the higher side of what's being considered could wipe out Skinny Pancake's modest profits.

"All the rhetoric has been about taking the burden off the backs of employers," he says. "But it's not taking the burden off if you use a payroll tax."

If enough small business owners defect, legislators will surely do so, too.

"For my colleagues, I think there's a lot of anxiety about this," says Rep. Jim Condon (D-Colchester), one of three House Democrats who voted against Act 48, "because they know whatever kind of funding plan is proposed is going to be like finding a dead skunk in your mailbox. Nobody's gonna like it."

For that reason, argues Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor), Shumlin has been wise to keep his ideas to himself until they're ready for primetime.

"If you have a vision or a goal and you're not able to fully articulate what it is, you leave it open to come under attack by people who might just not agree with you from a political standpoint," he says.

For Shumlin to succeed, he'll have to convince the legislature — and the public — that he can manage the transformation of Vermont's entire health care system better than he managed Vermont Health Connect. Even he admits that's a tall order.

"Clearly the biggest stumbling block is the rollout of the Affordable Care Act," Shumlin says, because it resulted in "the loss of confidence in government's ability to get health care right."

Racine, who knows the legislature as well as his old rival does, says he's not confident its members will line up behind the governor.

"I really don't know how to predict that one," he says. "I will say that with some legislators, I do not see the commitment to doing — if I can use Gov. Shumlin's words — the tough things that need to be done and deal with the political fallout from that."

But, as Shumlin has proved time and time again, nobody in Montpelier is more skilled at working the levers of power. With a mix of charm, chutzpah and dogged determination, the governor usually gets his way.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Emperor's New Bros"

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