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Single Issue: Will Health Care or Property Taxes Motivate Vermont Voters? 

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When legislators return to Montpelier in January, they're expected to debate the most significant expansion of Vermont state government in decades: If Gov. Peter Shumlin gets his way, they'll raise roughly $2 billion in new taxes to fund a universal health care system that would replace private insurance.

Kind of a big deal, right?

But as Corey Parent knocks on doors in the St. Albans district he hopes to represent in the Vermont House, he's hearing a lot more about another topic.

"The biggest issue I hear about is property taxes," the 24-year-old Republican says. "That's on top of folks' minds."

When voters bring up health care, he says, "There's just utter confusion about it." Some are irate over the failures of Vermont Health Connect, the federally mandated insurance exchange, which has suffered chronic malfunctions since it launched a year ago last week. Others are frightened about what Shumlin's so-called single-payer system might mean for their family or business. Still more don't know the difference between the two.

"It's all over the place in terms of what the specific concern is," says. Rep. Mike McCarthy (D-St. Albans), a single-payer supporter and one of two incumbents Parent faces in November. "It's not the first thing I bring up at the door. The reason for that is not that I'm not proud of my position, but the issue is so complex. Unless people want to go down the rabbit hole, it's a hard one to talk about."

Indeed, while Montpelier insiders are hyper-focused on the looming battle over single-payer financing, anecdotal accounts suggest that many voters are more focused on the property tax bill in their mailbox.

"When I go out and knock on doors, the thing I hear people really concerned about is the cost of education, property taxes and making sure that we get the return on our investment in our education system," says House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown). "So I think that should be one of our major priorities."

Don't hold your breath.

You can expect Shumlin and legislative leaders to pay lip service to education finance reform this winter, much as they did last winter. But there's only so much bandwidth in a 16-week session, and most of it will be consumed by single-payer.

Already, the governor is signaling that his efforts to control the cost of education will focus on persuading school districts to tackle the problem voluntarily — not rewriting the state's funding formula or forcing consolidation.

"My expectations for legislative action to solve property tax challenges are not exuberant, for the reason that I have yet to hear anyone walking around with a plan for which there's consensus that it solves the problem," Shumlin told Seven Days last week. "Some things governors do legislatively. Some things they do because they gotta get it done."

And some things they hope someone else will do for them.

Given the reality that single-payer — not education finance — will top the agenda this winter, why hasn't there been a more robust debate over the former this election season?

For one thing, the details of Shumlin's proposal remain undefined. When the governor ignored both statutory and self-imposed deadlines to release a financing plan, he took a potent political issue off the table.

For opponents, it's hard to attack a tax when you don't know what it'll look like. And for supporters, it's hard to defend a benefits package when you don't know what it'll include.

Then there's the matter of political opposition. Polling has consistently suggested that Shumlin could've been vulnerable to a serious challenge. A new Castleton Polling Institute survey commissioned by WCAX-TV shows the Democratic incumbent leading Republican Scott Milne 47 to 35 percent, with Libertarian Dan Feliciano pulling 6 percent. That's a mere 6 percentage-point gap between those who support the gov and those who don't.

But, oddly enough, the Republican nominee does not oppose single-payer. He calls himself "agnostic" on the issue. So the only time it's raised on the campaign trail is when reporters — or Feliciano — bring it up.

Just as dismal as Milne's campaign: the Vermont GOP's candidate recruiting. With just 81 Republican candidates running for the House — contesting barely more than half the 150 available seats — the party is hardly able to take the issue statewide.

Lastly, the surge of out-of-state money that single-payer supporters and opponents expected hasn't yet materialized. Even our local conservative mega-donor — Burlington's Lenore Broughton, who contributed a cool million dollars to GOP candidates two years ago — has thus far kept her powder dry.

Of course, each of these factors is interrelated. Good candidates won't enter a race unless they feel confident funding will follow them. And out-of-state interest groups won't open their wallets if there are no campaigns in which to invest.

"I think the worst-case scenario was a strong, well-funded, articulate gubernatorial opponent holding the financing plan in his hand, saying, 'This governor is going to tax you $2 billion,'" says health-care reformer Peter Sterling, who last winter revived a moribund special interest group, Vermont Leads, to prepare for such a challenge.

In March, the Montpelier lobbying firm KSE Partners founded a similar organization, called the Vermont Coalition for Universal Reform. Both received $100,000 donations from national labor unions — and both hoped to draw down much more this fall. But aside from "a couple small donations," Sterling has hardly raised a dime since, limiting his advocacy to endorsements, public talks and $1,050 in radio ads.

VT CURE board chairman Bram Kleppner admits his group hasn't done much better on the fundraising front, though it has accepted "a small handful of five-figure donations" on top of the AFT seed money.

Pretty much the only news VT CURE has made this election season came when Vermont Public Radio's Peter Hirschfeld reported last week that it was parting ways with executive director Tess Taylor. Both sides attributed the former House minority leader's departure to a shift in the organization's direction, but Kleppner says her "lack of real passion or flair" for fundraising played a part.

According to Kleppner, VT CURE has conducted polling and produced television ads, but he doesn't expect them to run until January.

"What we really need is for the newly seated legislature to not be hearing a lot of anxiety, but to hear a lot of support," he says.

Kleppner says he still hopes to hit up donors nationwide who "think that Vermont is a potential leader and a potential catalyst" for single-payer.

"I think we could effectively deploy half a million to a million dollars a year for the next few years," he says.

Kleppner's not the only one on the hunt for out-of-state cash.

Republican operative Darcie Johnston says the group she founded, Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, is hoping to bring in big bucks this winter to counter single-payer as legislators are debating it.

"Vermont has proven itself to be an incubator for bad ideas and those ideas have spread," says Johnston, who has been serving as an unpaid campaign manager for Feliciano. "There will be a national focus to contain and kill this before it takes hold anywhere else."

Johnston and her single-payer-loving foes have another thing in common: They both wish the single-payer debate had taken hold this fall.

"Come January, when Vermonters get that financing plan and the whole legislative session focuses on health care, they're going to feel like they walked into a brick wall," Johnston says.

Like Johnston, Sterling says a fuller discussion of the issue could've informed the public before legislators return to Montpelier.

"In the absence of information, fear takes over — and that's largely what we're seeing out there," he says.

Truth in Labeling

Shumlin's reelection campaign dropped another $80,000 on television advertising last Thursday, bringing his TV total in the last month to $295,000. That's more than the $285,000 he spent on the tube throughout his 2012 reelection campaign — and he's still got a month to go before Election Day.

Is somebody a little nervous?

While the gov's first two ads touched on pretty predictable themes — the minimum wage, college affordability and a whole lot of Tropical Storm Irene — his latest focuses on a surprising subject: GMO labeling.

Surprising because, well, Shumlin spent years arguing it was a risky proposition.

That ain't how it plays on TV.

The ad features a Montpelier mother and daughter putting away groceries and inspecting the nutritional facts on a box of Cheerios. The mother tells the viewer she wants to "make good choices about what we eat," so she's "always checking the labels on our food."

"That's why I appreciate Gov. Shumlin's work to make it the law that genetically modified foods be labeled, so we know what's in them. That's important to me," the mom says. "It says a lot about Vermont that we're the first state to require that. And it says a lot about Peter Shumlin that he made it happen."

Made it happen?

Tell that to the folks at Rural Vermont, the Northeast Organic Farming Association and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group who spent years fighting for GMO labeling while the governor resisted it.

"I would just say there were a lot of people working on it for a very long time," says Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden), who introduced the first such bill in the late 1990s. "It was good Gov. Shumlin joined us in the end to support a strong bill."

For years, Shumlin said he backed GMO labeling in concept, but believed that mandating it was legally perilous. He argued that any such attempt would suffer the same fate as Vermont's 1994 law requiring dairy products produced with recombinant bovine growth hormone to be labeled as such. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down in 1996 and awarded damages.

"It cost us a lot of money," Shumlin said during an April 2012 press conference as he urged the House to shelve the bill.

"I believe that consumers have a right to know what they're eating," he continued. "I also know this is almost identical to the case that we lost in the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was a better court than we have now on these issues."

Shumlin made much the same point in March 2013, telling an audience in Rutland, "The food industry took us to the Second Circuit. It was not only called unconstitutional for some very good reasons, but we had to pay the legal fees."

Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen reads the record differently, saying, "I can't remember or find a time in print when Gov. Shumlin opposed GMO labeling."

Opposed it? That'd be a stretch. "Made it happen?" Also a stretch.

By the time advocates pushed the bill through the Senate last April, the governor had embraced it. In May, he held the biggest signing ceremony of the year on the Statehouse steps, comparing GMO labeling to other Vermont firsts, such as banning slavery and legalizing same-sex marriage.

These days, he brings it up at every campaign stop. Guess it polls well!

VPIRG executive director Paul Burns, who stood beside Shumlin at the signing ceremony, is diplomatic in his assessment of the governor's position. Calling it "an evolutionary process," Burns says that what's important is that Shumlin eventually got to "yes."

"It was an example of democracy working," he says.

But really? Shumlin "made it happen?"

"Well, clearly he signed it," Burns says. "So he made it happen!"

Media Notes

The Burlington Free Press reported late Tuesday that legendary newsman Sam Hemingway is retiring after 37 years at the paper.

Hemingway, 66, has served as a reporter, editor and columnist since he joined the Freeps in 1977. Even after announcing his retirement to colleagues Tuesday afternoon, he was still on the beat. Reached later that evening, he said he couldn't talk because he was on deadline.

You've done a helluva job, Sam. We're sorry to see you go.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Single Issue"
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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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