ST. ALBANS — Gov. Peter Shumlin continued to tout the work of the Vermont Legislature this biennium in an interview with The St. Albans Messenger last Wednesday.
The governor spoke about education, Lake Champlain, health care and reducing prison costs while treating drug addiction.
“They quietly got a lot done,” said Shumlin, adding that the bulk of lawmakers’ work will benefit middle- and low-income Vermonters.
Shumlin said all of the education initiatives he proposed two years ago passed this biennium, including dual enrollment for high school students, universal preschool and the Vermont Strong Scholars Program, which repays some loan debt for students who attended Vermont colleges and remained here to work in qualified jobs.
One item that didn’t make it to the legislative floor was a plan developed by the House Ways and Means Committee to transition education spending from the property tax to a combination with income taxes.
Asked about the proposal, Shumlin pivoted to discuss the proposal for consolidating Vermont’s plethora of supervisory unions within 50 to 60 education districts: “I applaud the House for having the courage to start the conversation,” Shumlin said. “The Senate disappointed me.”
It was left to Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, who accompanied the governor on his trip to St. Albans, to answer the question about funding. The issue, he suggested, isn’t how education is funded, but its cost.
“If you’re spending at the level we are, the formula won’t fix it,” Spaulding said.
The legislature did make some refinements to the funding formula, linking the excess spending threshold to the inflation rate, for example. If a school district hits that threshold, residents pay for the increase, regardless of if they’re eligible for income sensitivity.
“We have a spending problem,” Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe said. Since the House bill and discussion about consolidation, Holcombe said more school districts inquired about merging.
When new pollution limits for Lake Champlain were first introduced last fall, Franklin County activists appeared pleased. But as the state continued to negotiate with the Environmental Protection Agency over the limits, known as total maximum daily load, the initial optimism about limiting the flow of phosphorous into lake gave way to frustration.
The EPA has twice asked the Shumlin administration to detail how it will fund new regulatory programs and incentives, but state leaders have instead insisted on federal support for cleanup efforts – or else it can’t be done, Shumlin said.
In Chesapeake Bay, programs to meet new pollution limits were paid with an assessment on property holders in the watershed. That isn’t possible in Vermont, suggested Shumlin, pointing out there are only 69 residents per square mile in the Lake Champlain watershed.
“Vermonters are willing to pay, and we’ll put skin in the game,” he said, adding, “My job as governor is to get as much federal money as possible. This has to be a partnership.”
Asked about the increased regulation the EPA wants and the staff needed to enforce it, Shumlin said, “Show us the loot before you give us a long list of what we have to do.”
When the discussion shifted to health care, Shumlin began by acknowledging, “We haven’t figured it out yet.”
Still, he is committed to creating a sustainable, affordable, universal health care system.
A barrier to wage increases over the past decade is increasing health care costs, he noted; companies paying increased premiums have not raised wages. “It’s gobbling up all of our expendable income,” Shumlin said.
He remains optimistic Vermont can find a way to reduce health care costs and improve outcomes with a model focused on overall care, including prevention, rather payment per procedure.
Since the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, Vermont has been one of the most successful states in enrolling residents for health insurance; however, Vermont is tied for last in enrolling people ages 20 to 35. Only 22 percent of enrollees are in that age group, while a full third are between 55 and 64.
Asked whether Vermont’s aging population adds to the challenge of creating a universal health care system, since older adults have higher health care expenditures, Shumlin said, “As soon as they turn 65, they’re part of that universal single payer health care system known as Medicaid.”
That’s true enough as far as it goes, but a 2013 analysis by age group sponsored by the Society of Actuaries found that health care costs for a 50-year-old were roughly triple those of a 20-year-old. That was true for inpatient costs, outpatient costs and drug expenditures.
The actuaries’ analysis of data from 2002-2010 found that costs for adults – excepting women of childbearing age – were relatively flat until their late 30s and 40s when they began to climb. Even the costs for childbearing women shifted later.
Vermont’s median age as of the 2010 Census was 41.5, meaning half of the state’s population is older; more recent estimates put it even higher.
What that could mean for Vermont’s efforts to create a universal health care system is still unclear.
Shumlin described the passage of the minimum wage bill (which, in stages, will increase Vermont’s base pay to $10.50 an hour by 2018) as “huge.”
“It’s going to move people from welfare to work,” Shumlin said.
Higher wages create an incentive for people to work. In addition, the legislature passed a bill to remove “benefit cliffs,” where people who either enter the workforce or receive a raise lose a number of benefits simultaneously. Such cliffs create a disincentive for work, and the legislature has discussed ways to end them for several years.
The legislature also gave Shumlin and the Emergency Board, composed of the heads of the legislature’s “money committees,” $4.5 million in business incentives to attract new businesses or support the expansion of existing ones. Shumlin said he has been in talks with two businesses considering expanding to Vermont in the past month, suggesting the fund may be useful in bringing them to the state.
Opiate addiction & prison costs
In January, Shumlin captured the attention of the nation when he made opiate addiction and heroin use the sole topic of his State of the State address.
“We are on the cutting edge of figuring out a better system for addressing opiate addiction,” Shumlin said.
Addiction also ties into a topic Shumlin raised in his first gubernatorial campaign: reducing prison costs. Shumlin argued then that reducing recidivism and keeping people out of prison would allow money to be invested in other areas, like education.
Asked about the success of those efforts, Shumlin said the number of people incarcerated post-conviction has declined, but beds are now filled with detainees awaiting adjudication of their cases.
By bringing an assessment program created in Chittenden County to the rest of the state, Shumlin hopes to bring detainee numbers down as well.
Those arrested will be assessed to determine what threat they pose to the community. A third-party will “figure out if you’re someone we should be afraid of,” Shumlin said.
Anyone deemed nonthreatening could choose substance abuse treatment with wrap-around services.
Imprisonment costs $1,138 per week while treatment and services cost only $130, Shumlin said.
Drug treatment experts have previously told The Messenger that stable housing can largely determine if people are successful after treatment. Vermont has struggled with affordable housing for years.
This year, the state budget includes a 10 percent increase in funding for the Vermont Housing Conservation Board to address precisely that issue, Shumlin explained. In addition, a program to subsidize housing for families waiting for federal housing vouchers is being expanded.
Correcting the affordable housing shortage will take time, Shumlin said.