Gov. Peter Shumlin is taking a legislative victory lap this week, stopping along the way to revel in the successes of his first session under the Golden Dome.
He started his statewide tour Monday morning with a live chat on WCAX-TV with anchor Keagan Harsha. Then he yukked it up on WVMT’s popular “Charlie, Ernie & Lisa” show, and zipped off to meet with the Burlington Free Press editorial board — all before 9 a.m.
At nine, Shumlin held his first official post-legislative press conference at the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.
All week long, the gov is staying busy with business groups, radio stations and bill-signing ceremonies around the state.
And why not? Vacation and pay-raise flaps aside, the Putney Democrat has plenty to crow about. Shumlin had to balance a budget with a projected $176 million shortfall without reneging on some ambitious campaign promises, including enacting health care reform and expanding broadband and cell service. And, of course, there was his promise to not raise broad-based taxes.
On all fronts Shumlin succeeded: He laid the groundwork for key policy items while resisting a growing call to raise taxes on the wealthy.
One brilliant strategy was to put off the next set of big public-policy goals until 2013, which, if I have my math correct, comes after 2012. And what is 2012? An election year! Can’t unelect the governor when he’s got a job to finish, right?
In short, the legislature gave Shumlin a gift by approving his ambitious agenda and his 2012 campaign strategy. That’s two for the price of one.
Shumlin isn’t taking all the credit for a successful session. He gave the legislature an “A-plus” grade for its role.
“In Washington, they are dominated by partisan bickering and paralysis,” said Shumlin. “Here, Vermont’s legislature and governor worked together to get tough things done.”
Why the collegiality? Simple, said House Speaker Shap Smith: “The priorities that the governor articulated were in sync with the priorities of the Democratic legislature.”
Not sure how “tough” it is to get your legislative agenda through two chambers dominated by your own party.
Smith proved once again he’s a leader who can push hard on issues he wants to see voted out of the chamber — like health care — and hold back on ones he doesn’t, such as the decriminalization of marijuana.
Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell were largely able to keep private any disagreements among Democrats — especially the one about raising taxes to protect social services. During the tenure of Gov. Howard Dean, the battles between Dean and legislative liberals became a spectator sport in Montpelier.
Today’s legislative Democrats wanted to give their governor a chance to experience some success in his first session. Next year, with every one of them up for reelection, I suspect there might be a few more public disagreements.
The Loyal Opposition
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s plan to have Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, play a role in his administration appears to be keeping Scott in check, at least politically.
Scott, who is one of two statewide elected Republicans and an amateur race-car driver, told Mark Johnson Friday morning on WDEV-FM that he doesn’t see his role of lite gov as the “voice of political opposition.”
Yikes. It might be time for the Vermont GOP to give Scott a tune-up, especially if Republicans hope to add to the eight seats they hold in the 30-member Senate. Scott presides over the Senate.
On the House side, the 48-member GOP caucus struggled to remain relevant this session, using parliamentary rules and committee work to advance their agenda.
The House GOP demanded that a “fiscal note” accompany each piece of legislation so lawmakers knew how much the bill would cost taxpayers. They also refused to allow bills to be expedited and voted on with fewer than 24 hours notice unless everyone had a chance to read the legislation. House Republicans asserted their right to provide a “minority report” on each bill that came to the floor, authored by committee members who didn’t support it.
They also fought hard against a proposed tax on dentists and worked to ensure that any excess money at the end of the fiscal year would not be spent.
“I didn’t want to spend all of our time down here just voting no,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton). “There is a way to question a vote and come up with an alternative view without being adversarial.”
The Vermont legislature left a few items on the table for next year’s session: hot-button issues such as “death with dignity” and decriminalizing marijuana, along with a bill allowing some childcare workers to organize.
Speaker Shap Smith said he’s open to taking up the death-with-dignity bill next year, as well as overhauling the state’s tax system. Smith’s no fan of decriminalization, though, which could cause some disharmony. Gov. Shumlin wants to make possession of small amounts of marijuana punishable by civil fines, not criminal-court appearances.
The budget will also be another tough one. A $70 million shortfall is expected, and it might be worse if the federal government cuts back its support for key social-service programs. That’s what worries advocates for the poor, disabled and elderly.
Legislative leaders left open the chance of a special session in October to deal with the impacts of federal budget cuts. At that time, lawmakers could consider raising taxes on a select few wealthier Vermonters as a way to raise additional funds. Various proposals floated this past session — all of which were soundly rejected — would have raised anywhere from $12 to $20 million.
It’s easy to say now that you’ll raise taxes later, and that worries Tim Searles, community-relations director at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
Searles predicts, “I suspect the will to raise revenues might dissipate in the face of electoral politics.”
Immigrant Song and Dance
Sens. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) and Dick Sears (D-Bennington) were roundly criticized for sponsoring an amendment to exempt “illegal” immigrants from universal health care in Vermont. They — and the other 20 senators who voted for it — thought they were preventing Vermont from running afoul of federal law. Stung by allegations of racism, Brock and Sears crafted a resolution urging the federal government to undertake a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform.
“America’s immigration laws are hopelessly outdated and do not address the realities of 2011,” reads the resolution, which passed overwhelmingly on the last day of the legislative session.
Brock said the amendment, and the controversy it stirred, highlights the need for a new, national immigration policy. States shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves, he said.
Perfect timing, too. This week, President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to adopt more sweeping immigration reforms.
Declare Victory and Get Out
It may seem as though Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., can’t agree on anything. But now that Osama bin Laden is dead, a bipartisan group of House members led by Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) is calling on President Barack Obama to end the war in Afghanistan.
In a letter sent to the prez on Monday, Welch and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) point out that bin Laden’s killing proves counterterrorism efforts may be more effective, and less costly, than nation building when it comes to combating al Qaeda.
Chaffetz chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations. Welch is a member of that committee.
Four other Democrats and Republicans — all high-ranking members of Chaffetz’s or the House Armed Services Committee — signed the letter.
“Our goal was not to gather mass signers to this letter, but rather make a forceful statement that had bipartisan support from credible members,” Welch told “Fair Game.”
Welch, a chief deputy whip, said a majority of his Democratic colleagues are skeptical of the U.S. role in Afghanistan, as is a growing number of Republicans.
“I think the president has an opening here to wind down this war, and he’d have congressional support to do it,” said Welch.
State Auditor Tom Salmon is leaning against running for U.S. Senate in 2012 but won’t make a final decision about taking on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for at least another month.
Salmon tells “Fair Game” the decision to run is no longer a 50-50 proposition, but more like 70-30 against such a quixotic bid.
“Lots of people are urging me to continue as auditor to assure the office not fall into liberal leadership or see reforms reversed,” Salmon informed “Fair Game” via email.
Salmon said he’d only consider another bid for auditor if no other qualified candidate stepped up. He’s not ruling out running for a different statewide office, either.
Hmm, could a Democrat-turned-Republican be the GOP’s best hope to unseat Gov. Shumlin? Salmon was certainly on the short list of GOP hopefuls in the wake of Gov. Jim Douglas’ surprise 2009 announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection.
The three-term auditor isn’t as impressed with Shumlin’s performance or legislative Democrats.
“I have to tell you that this one-party government in Vermont is not good. It breeds arrogance,” said Salmon, who urged lawmakers to slow the pace on health care reform to better understand its fiscal implications. He made similar overtures about Vermont Yankee during the last session. “It’s way out of balance,” Salmon said, “and I think going to D.C. may not be the sincere path given what has materialized here in Vermont.”