MONTPELIER (AP) - Vermont legislators ceremoniously convened their 2014 session Tuesday, seating new members and remembering the former colleagues, then quickly getting down to business.
The lawmakers are faced with closing a $70 million budget gap and will be looking for solutions to a growing problem of opiate abuse. They also plan to focus on moving Vermont another step closer to putting the nation's first single payer health care system into place in 2017.
House Speaker Shap Smith gaveled the chamber to order midmorning and praised what he described as a diversity of opinion among the chamber's 150 members. At the same time, the Senate came to order.
"There is an inherent tension in the work that we do here," Smith said.
Referring to the state's Freedom and Unity motto, Smith said that while individual freedom is the bedrock of Vermont, a successful community requires cooperation among individuals.
"They cannot only see what is best for the individual. We must also figure out what is good for our entire community and what is good for us all," Smith said. "I hope we will remember that as we face the challenges ahead of us this year."
Less than an hour after Smith spoke, Gov. Peter Shumlin made a rare appearance before a joint House and Senate committee, renewing his pledge to the single payer system and to fixing problems that have plagued the rollout of the state's health care exchange and expansion of health coverage.
Shumlin's remarks drew immediate response from some who said the move to a single payer system could threaten jobs and small businesses.
"The health care reform effort has been a roller-coaster since the beginning. The governor deserves credit for acknowledging the problems and treating them with the urgency they demand," said Shawn Shouldice, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents about 1,400 businesses in Vermont. "But it's not at all clear based on his remarks that his administration knows what to do next."
At the same hearing, single payer advocates used the first day of the session to promote the system.
The Vermont Workers Center brought about 100 people to the Statehouse as part of its "All the People Need Health and Dignity" campaign. Many wore red T-shirts while endorsing Vermont's move to a single payer system and calling for paid sick days.