ST. ALBANS — Gov. Peter Shumlin continued to tout the work of the Vermont Legislature during this biennium in an interview with the Messenger on 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 over the course of the biennium, including dual enrollment for high school students, a universal pre-school program, and the Vermont Strong Scholars Program, which allows students who attended Vermont colleges and remained in Vermont to work in qualified jobs to have some of their college costs repaid by the state.
One item that didn’t make it to the legislative floor was a plan developed by the House Ways and Means Committee to change the way education is paid for from the property tax to a combination of property and 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,” said Shumlin. “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,” said Spaulding.
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 whether they are eligible for income sensitivity.
“We have a spending problem,” said Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcomb, who was also in on the interview. Since the House bill and discussion about consolidation, Holcomb said her agency has seen an uptick in school districts inquiring about merging.
When new pollution limits for Lake Champlain were first introduced last fall, Franklin County activists appeared pleased. But as the state has continued to negotiate with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the limits (known as the TMDL or Total Maximum Daily Load) the initial optimism that at last something would be done to limit the flow of phosphorous into lake has given way to frustration.
While EPA has now twice asked the Shumlin administration to provide information on how it will fund new regulatory programs and incentives, the administration has instead insisted on federal support for cleanup efforts.
“There is no way we can clean up Lake Champlain and our polluted waterways without federal support,” said Shumlin.
In Chesapeake Bay, programs needed to meet new pollution limits were paid for with an assessment on property holders in the watershed. That isn’t possible in Vermont, suggested Shumlin, pointing out that 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,” said Shumlin.
“My job as governor is to get as much federal money as possible,” he added. “This has to be a partnership.”
Asked about the increased regulation EPA wants and the staff needed to enforce that regulation, 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.
One of the barriers to wage increases over the past decade has been the increase in health care costs, he noted. Companies paying increased premiums have not raised wages. “It’s gobbling up all of our expendable income,” said Shumlin.
He remains optimistic that Vermont can find a way to reduce health care costs and improve outcomes with a model that is 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 at getting residents signed up for health insurance. However, Vermont is tied for last in the percentage of those people ages 20 to 35 that enrolled in the state’s health care exchange. 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, simply because older adults have higher health care expenditures than younger ones, 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. However, a 2013 analysis of health care costs 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 the health care data from 2002-2010 found that costs for adults – with the exception of women of childbearing age – were relatively flat until the late thirties and forties when they began to climb. Even the costs for childbearing women were shifting later.
Vermont’s median age as of the 2010 census was 41.5, meaning half of the state’s population is older than 41.5. 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,” said Shumlin.
Higher wages create an additional incentive for people to work. In addition, the Legislature passed legislation 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 been discussing 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 that can be used 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 and 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,” said Shumlin.
Addiction also ties into a topic Shumlin raised in his first campaign for governor – reducing prison costs. Shumlin argued then that reducing recidivism and keeping people out of prison would save money that could 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 assessor will “figure out if you’re someone we should be afraid of,” said Shumlin.
Anyone not deemed to be a threat would be given the immediate option of substance abuse treatment with wrap around services. “That’s going to make a huge difference,” said Shumlin.
Placing someone in prison costs $1,138 per week while treatment and services cost only $130, he said.
Drug treatment experts have previously told the Messenger that one of the biggest determinants of continued success after treatment is stable housing. The state has struggled with a lack of 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, explained Shumlin. 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, said Shumlin.