MONTPELIER — Senate Democrats agreed Thursday that oversight of the state’s online health insurance exchange and tackling problems with mental health care in the state are top priorities for the upcoming legislative session — right behind crafting a budget that closes a $70 million gap and helps create jobs.
The caucus, which boasts 23 of the 30 members of the Senate and easily controls its agenda, gathered at the Capitol Plaza Hotel to wrangle over the priorities of its members. Some potential fault lines emerged, especially over the state’s energy policy.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, from Windsor County, was optimistic that the projected budget shortfall could be overcome without significant harm to the state’s most vulnerable populations.
“We probably will be able to find ways to address some of that without relative pain. However, it is going to be a very challenging session, extremely challenging,” he said.
Orange County Sen. Mark MacDonald expressed frustration over dealing with budget shortfalls year after year in the same manner — cutting programs and services. Lawmakers have “seen this movie five times” in which low- and middle-income Vermonters lose ground, he said.
“I think each and every one of us is very frustrated because we are watching it happen before our very eyes and we appear hopeless in how we as a state Legislature can make a difference,” MacDonald said.
Democrats, who have held majority status in both the Senate and House chambers for several years, cannot continue to just argue that it would be worse under GOP control, MacDonald told the caucus.
“I don’t know how many years in a row we can do that,” he said. “I think it’s cast a pall upon each one of us that ... think that the script has been written for us.”
Median income is lower now than it was a decade ago, said Sen. Anthony Pollina, of Washington County. He urged colleagues to consider how raising incomes can help generate more state revenue and close the budget gap.
“Jobs are not going to be created just because we talk about them,” Pollina said.
Lawmakers, who will reconvene Jan. 7, have largely been watching from the sidelines as the state’s health exchange, Vermont Health Connect, stumbled out of the gate Oct. 1. Some components, including the ability to accept online payments or enroll small businesses directly, remain elusive.
Campbell said the problems are mostly related to software and will be fixed.
“There are people who are going to try and take that and they’re going to try and embellish that,” he said.
“To them I say, ‘You know what? You’ve never shown us any other way, No. 1,” Campbell said. “No. 2, what we’re doing is required by the federal government, and, No. 3, I think we’re doing a hell of a job despite the problems that we’re facing.’”
The caucus also listed a shoreline bill and cleaning up lakes and waterways as top priorities, along with labor and workforce issues.
The labor issues including paid sick leave, which could emerge as one of the most controversial issues for lawmakers. Tackling rapidly rising state costs to maintain pensions must also be addressed, Campbell said.
The state could harness the success of recent college graduates developing applications for smartphones and tablets, Campbell said.
Energy, which was not listed among the top six priorities, quickly became a hot-button issue at Thursday’s meeting. Sen. John Rodgers, of Orleans County, who reiterated his opposition to large-scale wind projects, urged his colleagues to rewrite the state’s energy policy.
Citing a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, Rodgers said the wind industry produces “as much or more radioactive material as the nuclear industry” but just 1.5 percent of the power.
Rodgers argued that wind turbines require rare minerals mined in China “that are largely controlled by vicious gangs.” And the mining is destroying farmland, he said.
“Is that OK to pollute their environment to produce so-called green energy here?” he said. “It’s not nearly as green as the industry would like us to think.”
Senate Democrats also want to address the state’s food stamp program, 3SquaresVT, which is facing fines from the federal government because of payment errors. And they want to look at raising the minimum wage, creating a state bank and the rising problem of Vermonters abusing opiates and heroin.
Gov. Peter Shumlin addressed the caucus and touted areas of success, including the fifth-lowest unemployment rate in the country. He said states ahead of Vermont are involved in the coal and oil industries and are “destroying the planet while they’re at it.”
“The states that are beating us have some advantages,” he said. “If they didn’t have those assets, we’d be beating all of them.”
Shumlin asked the caucus to help with “plowing the ground” in the upcoming session for the single-payer health care system his administration plans to introduce in 2015. He noted tough issues lawmakers have faced in the past, including civil unions, same-sex marriage and the state’s education funding system.
Votes on a universal, single-payer health care system will be tougher, Shumlin said.
“Those lifts will be relatively easier compared to what I’m going to ask you to do in 2015 — a publicly financed, sensible, affordable health care system,” he said.
Shumlin said his administration will provide lawmakers options on how such a system will be paid for.
“We must, together, figure out the smartest way, the most equitable way, to finance this opportunity,” he said. “We will come to you with plans. We’ve got a great team that’s going to give you all the options. What I ask you to do is spend some time this winter plowing the ground because you can’t make these changes in a day, in a week or in a month.”
The governor also said he will present his own plan on how the state can address drug abuse.
“I promise I will come to you early in the session with things that I think will help,” Shumlin said. “I cannot think of an issue where the stakes are higher and where we are losing so badly so quickly.”
Shumlin also promised to work better with lawmakers in his own party than last year, when some of his policy ideas caught lawmakers by surprise and drew little support.
“I know that there were times last year where we didn’t always agree,” Shumlin said. “I can tell you with conviction that when I don’t get along with the people I love … it bothers me. And I look at it and examine it.”
He added, “Despite what they say about me, I do have the ability to reflect, I do have the ability to learn, I do have the ability to grow.”
It was clear that some policy areas would see no new agreement, though.
Sensing an opportunity, Rodgers asked Shumlin to identify places where he thought wind power was inappropriate in the state.
“I love you, Rodgers, but no, we’re not going to agree on wind,” Shumlin replied. “I don’t think we’re going to debate this in a way that I’m going to change your mind or you’re going to change my mind.”
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