Vermont Lawmakers Fail on Reform Efforts

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

THIS was to be the year of major reform in Vermont. Leading the agenda was Gov. Howard Dean's health-care package, patterned more or less on President Clinton's employer-funded national plan. Equally weighty was property-tax reform, designed to lift some of the burden from homeowners and equalize educational spending throughout the state.

Vermont's complex web of environmental regulations was also slated for reform, as was its workers' compensation system. All these issues are active in other states too, so tiny Vermont was being watched.

But when Speaker Ralph Wright gaveled the end of the state's longest-ever legislative session just before sundown on June 12, few of the ambitious reforms had been accomplished.

Some cost controls on workers' compensation passed, as did a skeletal version of environmental regulatory reform. The two big ones, however, didn't squeak through in any form.

Health-care reform is adamantly opposed by conservative Republicans here as in Washington. But right-wing opponents were joined by lawmakers on the left who were determined to hold out for a single-payer, government-funded version of health insurance. What it boiled down to was deadlock.

Wait for Washington

The inclination now is to wait and see what the federal government does on health care. ``But I'd be surprised if they don't have a bigger meltdown than Vermont had,'' says Carl Powden, a Democratic state representative involved in the reform efforts.

Mr. Powden has little time for those who say the state simply bit off too much this year. ``I heard one [state] senator say maybe the issues are too large for a citizen legislature. But if they're too large, who else is supposed to handle them? A benevolent dictator?''

It didn't help, of course, that this was a year in which the governor, much of the Legislature, and Vermont's lone US representative, Bernard Sanders (I), are seeking reelection. Partisanship seemed to overwhelm a tradition of cooperation across party lines.

The bipartisan tradition actually began to crumble a decade ago when Speaker Wright brought something akin to Massachusetts-style machine politics to the Democratic-controlled House, says John Carroll, the GOP majority leader in the Vermont Senate who will be vying for Congressman Sanders's seat this fall.

In Senator Carroll's view, Senate Republicans simply firmed up their party's discipline this year to defeat health-care and property-tax proposals that could have doubled Vermonters' taxes.

``It's not the Vermont Legislature we used to have,'' laments Arthur Gibb, a former lawmaker from Montpelier who now chairs the state's Environmental Board, which administers its central land-use statute, Act 250.

In former years, Mr. Gibb says, ``there was not nearly as strict an adherence to the party line. We voted on the merits to a much greater extent.''

Property-tax reform

On an issue like property-tax reform, the ``merits'' can be debatable. The reform plan, passed by the House of Representatives, combined a new local income tax with a statewide tax on nonresidential property (businesses and second homes) to more equitably allocate education dollars.

Vermont's business community didn't like the proposed reform, and the teachers' union loudly protested a related measure that would have moved bargaining on salaries to the state level. ``We're very pleased that the Senate was able to slay Ralph Wright's property-tax dragon,'' Carroll says.

But the property-tax issue, unlike health care, probably will rise in the Legislature again next year. Reform of the tax has been sought for 30 years, Powden says. In the past, property-tax reform might have gotten 18 votes in the House, he says. This year it got 83. ``We've advanced the issue tremendously,'' he asserts.

Property-tax reform has a clear political advantage over health-care reform, observes John Freidin, another state representative. The former is likely to help more than 60 percent of the state's citizens, he says, while the latter - because of probable higher costs for many, and new restrictions on insurance coverage - is unlikely to be mitigated. ``It's very hard to win on this issue,'' Mr. Freidin says.

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