The New Year dawned in Montpelier this week with the promise of change in policy and fiscal direction from outgoing Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin to incoming Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
First elected governor in 2010, Shumlin came into office perceived by voters as a moderate to liberal Democrat. But after serving three two-year terms, he departs Jan. 5 as a left-leaning Democrat with strong, Euro-style socialist proclivities.
From health care to energy, Shumlin’s administration, in concert with the Democrat-led Legislature, significantly altered the public policy trajectory of Republican predecessor Jim Douglas.
A brief look at Shumlin’s legacy reveals few accomplishments to either help reduce middle-class tax burdens or grow Vermont economically.
Early on, the governor demonstrated crisis management skills during the devastating Tropical Storm Irene event and then performed well as the genial public host of the 2011 grand opening of the Lake Champlain Bridge spanning Vermont and New York.
But when it comes to futurity’s judgment, the departing governor’s boondoggles — such as presiding over the Vermont Health Connect fiasco and the loss of over 8,000 private sector jobs — may cast the longest shadow.
One of Shumlin’s most vocal critics throughout his terms as governor was state Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, the House minority leader.
Turner brought attention to Shumlin’s bloated budgets during legislative sessions, noting often that state spending climbed to nearly 4 percent beginning in 2011. A recent report issued by the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office backs up Turner’s claim of overspending.
“This administration and the Democrat supermajority have been spending at a rate greater than the growth in Vermont’s revenue, relying on onetime dollars, spending state reserves and growing government at an unsustainable rate since they took office,” Turner said at a 2016 news conference. “… They have hired over 600 new state employees … negotiated a $24 million … pay raise for state employees, spent almost all of the state reserves, continued to rely on onetime funds for base programs and continue to spend millions on the failed Vermont Health Connect as well as the governor’s single-payer priority. Vermonters can’t afford these choices.”
“Health care is a right, not a privilege,” Shumlin said on more than one occasion during his three terms in office. The phrase also became the mantra of Democrats and Progressives both under the Golden Dome and beyond.
In early 2011, Shumlin signed Act 48 establishing the controversial state health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as a launching pad “to develop future universal insurance coverage for all residents, making Vermont the first state to initiate a plan for single-payer health care.”
But by 2016, as reported by Vermont Watchdog, “Vermont paid (out) millions of dollars for faulty technology patches after the state failed to hold its IT vendors accountable” — this following the $200 million health care exchange website’s technical glitches, which threw 14,000 Vermonters into an insurance Never Never Land.
The exchange’s well-reported technology problems stemmed from unscrupulous business practices by third-party contractors, and from an overall lack of technological experience among state officials.
According to Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont-based free-market think tank, “Peter Shumlin’s attempt to have Vermont, with a population of 620,000, become the first and only state in the Union with a government-run single payer health care system has so far proven to be an inefficient, expensive, incompetently run disaster.”
When it came to energy policy, the Shumlin administration came into office with low-carbon, alternative energy at the top of the agenda.
Shumlin was always willing to listen and discuss ideas about energy generation and costs, at least according to Guy Page, communications director of the Vermont Energy Partnership. But talking is one thing, doing another.
“Accessibility and professional courtesy have always been forthcoming and appreciated,” Page told Vermont Watchdog. “But the Shumlin administration energy policy contained a great contradiction: while seeking greenhouse gas reduction, it also sought to close Vermont Yankee, by far the most productive low-carbon power generator in the state’s history. Vermont Yankee also contributed about $25 million to the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund.”
To supplant Vermont Yankee’s vast nuclear power output, Shumlin ended up supporting purchases of market power, primarily imported natural gas.
“Since the Vermont Yankee contract expired in 2012, more, not less, of our power has come from fossil-fuel combustion,” Page noted. “In terms of greenhouse gas reduction, the administration’s energy plan has been a failure. … Only the ultra-low cost of natural gas and the relatively low portfolio share of expensive solar and wind power keeps Vermonters’ power bills fairly stable.”
Business and jobs
By comparison to the two Vermont governorships before him, Shumlin’s tenure may be one of the least business friendly administrations in memory. Shumlin presided over the sharpest business and labor declines in Vermont’s recent history.
According to one EAI newsletter, Vermont’s non-government labor force shrank by 8,700 during Shumlin’s governorship. While the job picture in neighboring states improved somewhat, Vermont remained hobbled.
“There have been a number of high profile defections from our job market under the Shumlin administration,” EAI’s Roper said.
Below are selected examples which received the greatest statewide attention during Shumlin’s tenure:
- The Energizer Battery plant in Franklin County closed in 2013, taking with it 165 jobs. At Energizer’s Bennington County plant, jobs were also lost in late 2015.
- Swiss-owned Huber + Suhner, a maker of radio frequency cables, left Chittenden County for New Jersey and North Carolina along with 65 skilled jobs in 2013.
- In 2013, G.E. Health Care cut 50 jobs from its South Burlington workforce.
- The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which closed in 2014 at the strong urging of Shumlin and the Democrats, lost 600 jobs.
- Kennametal, a tap-and-die business in Lyndonville, closed in 2014, costing 80 skilled jobs.
- In 2015, the Plasan Composites manufacturing plant in Bennington closed with the loss of 145 jobs.
During the Shumlin years, Vermont’s job growth occurred mostly in low-skill and low wage areas ranging from cashiers and personal care workers to salespersons and fast food servers.
Incoming Gov. Phil Scott will have a busy agenda in the opening weeks of his new administration.
Having served as Shumlin’s lieutenant governor, Scott is already considering a variety of issues ranging from job creation, taxes and employment regulation reform to school choice, energy and the state deficit.
EAI’s Roper is optimistic that the new Scott administration will not be tone deaf, at least when it comes to making choices that will help make Vermont more competitive and affordable.
But various issues from 2016 remain in 2017, and will test the new administration’s mettle: Act 46, the school district merger plan, and the carbon tax proposal.
In a recent commentary, EAI founder John McClaughry wondered about Scott’s ability to remain faithful to his campaign promises.
“Gov. Scott campaigned on the attractive idea that ‘state budget spending will not grow faster than the economy or your wages.’ Exactly what that means remains unclear,” McClaughry wrote.
Campaign promises aside, Scott’s most underrated skill is that he has worked congenially with Democrats in order to get things done for Vermonters; that fact clearly resonated with voters.
“This is one area in which they all really need to cooperate, beginning on Day One,” McClaughry added.