The legislative session that ended on Saturday compiled a record of solid achievement on a number of difficult issues. During the same session, legislators generated significant sound and fury on bills that eventually fell by the wayside.
Passage of a health care bill creating a health care exchange starting in 2014 was a historic step forward in Vermont’s march toward meaningful health care reform. The exchange will be a marketplace where Vermonters can go to buy health insurance, tapping into the federal health care money that will help make coverage affordable. Republicans raised questions about the cost of the state’s establishment of an exchange, but the logic of single-payer health care, which is the Shumlin administration’s ultimate goal, has taken hold in Montpelier. The state’s plan dovetails with the Obama administration’s health reform program so that Vermont will become an important laboratory for health care.
Skeptics were frustrated during the debate by the lack of firm numbers about the cost of Vermont’s program, but state officials are still developing their cost estimates and will not be ready to present specifics about taxes and costs until next year. Next year will be crunch time on the Shumlin health care plan.
Another major accomplishment this year got a major boost from nature. Tropical Storm Irene finally closed the doors on the antiquated Vermont State Hospital, which administrations going back to Howard Dean’s had been unable to replace. The hospital for the acutely mentally ill had lost federal accreditation, costing the state millions in federal money, but no one was able to find an alternative — until Irene.
Irene forced a middle-of-the-night evacuation of about 52 patients who were scattered among health care facilities around the state, throwing the state’s mental health system into crisis. The Legislature had to decide what to do about its mental health programs, and also what to do with the state office complex at Waterbury, which was also battered by the flood.
The Legislature and the Shumlin administration heard from the diverse interests involved — the town of Waterbury, the city of Barre, state employees, mental health advocates — and fashioned a comprehensive solution that ought to be a turning point for the state’s mental health program. It includes a new, smaller mental health facility in Berlin, providing 16-25 beds. Most mental health patients will be served by a range of programs that are closer to the community, including programs at the Brattleboro Retreat, Rutland Regional Medical Center, and Fletcher Allen Health Care. Smaller, less restrictive, community-based programs will also be employed.
One of the Legislature’s accomplishments has the potential for causing much mischief in Vermont’s schools. The Legislature passed a bill supported by Gov. Peter Shumlin changing the commissioner of education to a secretary of education appointed by and beholden to the governor. At present the commissioner reports to the Education Board.
Shumlin crowed that the bill ensures “that the governor can finally direct education policy in Vermont.” And that is the problem. The politicization of education now stands as a dangerous possibility, with education policy shifting from one governor to the next and local schools forced to swing one way and then another according to the political winds. There seemed to be an assumption underlying the legislation that somewhere in Montpelier there was a font of wisdom about education and that it needed only to be tapped. But no one has been able to identify the font or describe what sort of wisdom might be forthcoming.
The sound and fury indulged by the Legislature surrounded a number of bills that foundered. There was the bill to insert the Legislature into the pending power company merger. There was the death with dignity bill, which came close to passage but fell short. There was a bill to allow police to inspect a prescription drug database without a warrant, which failed because of concerns over civil liberties. There was the bill to allow child-care workers to unionize and the larger failure of other labor bills.
Mostly, the good ideas succeeded and the bad ideas failed. There were exceptions. But on the whole it was an exceptional year.
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