Heidi E. Scheuermann
There have been many opinions about how successful the 2013-2014 legislative session was. Just prior to adjournment, Governor Peter Shumlin told the House of Representatives, "We have made this biennium one of the most productive in recent memory." In other press reports, House Speaker Shap Smith called the last session "incredibly productive." But does this predictable self-congratulatory back-slapping tell the real story? Unfortunately, no. It belies the lack of real results in the areas most important to the working families, and overall economic vitality, of our state. A more accurate characterization of the two-year session is one of missed opportunities and challenges unmet. While there were some positive developments and some important legislation passed, the issues many Vermonters wanted so desperately for us to address were not.
Indeed, there were some modest accomplishments. After many years of prodding from Republican members, we took another step in addressing our state’s $3 billion unfunded pension liabilities. We made necessary reforms to the welfare system, by turning the aptly named "benefits cliff" into more of a "benefits slope" and creating better opportunities for low-income Vermonters to work and achieve independence. And we passed the economic development bill on which Rep. Paul Ralston (D-Middlebury) and I worked tirelessly. While these measures are each modest steps forward, they are in no way the comprehensive, long-term commitment to economic development and fiscal responsibility that our state so desperately needs and deserves. In some ways, they could be fairly characterized as band aids.
Plants throughout Vermont are closing, many Vermonters have lost jobs and the costs of living here -- many of which are driven by policies passed by the Legislature -- continue to grow faster than many families’ paychecks.
So, as political leaders pat themselves on the back for the session or our low "unemployment" rate, keep in mind that since January 2011, 8,850 Vermonters have dropped out of the workforce. Sure, some new jobs are being created -- but too many Vermonters have to work more than one of them to make ends meet. Consider, too, that there has been a stunning lack of accountability and transparency around health care reform. The rollout of Vermont Health Connect was disastrous, all at the expense of families and businesses. Yet, nobody, absolutely nobody, has been held accountable for these failures.
In addition to this abysmal administrative boondoggle, legislative leaders and the Governor continue to insist that we march down an undefined path to a $2.2 billion taxpayer-funded health care system. The only thing we know for sure is that their political promises of lower costs, better care, and guaranteed insurance for all continue -- with absolutely no honest plan for getting us there.
When this effort launched in 2011, the law required that the Governor present a financing plan by January of last year. As of today, there is no proposal. The lack of any action at all to reform education funding and provide property tax relief is another disappointment. For years, Vermonters have been pleading for reforms. Yet, for years, those pleas have been ignored.
As the cries for reform continued last year, the Legislature instead passed a 5 and 6-cent tax increase -- knowing full well that there would be similar increases this year.
Even as 36 school budgets went down to defeat on Town Meeting Day, nothing was done to reform the system. In fact, property taxes will continue to rise this year by 4 and 7 cents, followed by yet another 7-9 cent increase next year. In November you will have an opportunity to hold all elected officials accountable for these unmet challenges and missed opportunities. It is time for you to send a message to Montpelier: Focus on the issues that matter most, be honest, and get real results. It’s time for a change.
Heidi E. Scheuermann, a Republican, represents House District Lamoille-1 in the Vermont House.