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Shumlin: Session a Success

  • Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin talks with the Valley News Editorial Board in West Lebanon, Tuesday, May 13, 2014, following the 2013 - 2014 legislative session.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin talks with the Valley News Editorial Board in West Lebanon, Tuesday, May 13, 2014, following the 2013 - 2014 legislative session.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin talks with the Valley News Editorial Board in West Lebanon, Tuesday, May 13, 2014, following the 2013 - 2014 legislative session.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin talks with the Valley News Editorial Board in West Lebanon, Tuesday, May 13, 2014, following the 2013 - 2014 legislative session.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin talks with the Valley News Editorial Board in West Lebanon, Tuesday, May 13, 2014, following the 2013 - 2014 legislative session.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin talks with the Valley News Editorial Board in West Lebanon, Tuesday, May 13, 2014, following the 2013 - 2014 legislative session.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

West Lebanon — Gov. Peter Shumlin crossed the Connecticut River Tuesday to hail the recently concluded session of the Vermont Legislature for providing an economic tonic to an economy that already boasts the nation’s second lowest unemployment rate.

“The Legislature focused on issues that are going to … lift up the middle class, working Vermonters, working families, by focusing on jobs, education and the quality of life,” Shumlin said in a Tuesday morning meeting with Valley News editors and reporters.

Shumlin proudly pointed to April’s statewide unemployment rate of 3.4 percent that trailed only North Dakota, where an oil and natural gas bonanza has lowered unemployment to 2.6 percent, but said the Legislature hadn’t forgotten the “middle class, working Vermonters who have not enjoyed the benefits of the recovery.”

Job-related measures touted by Shumlin ranged from $500,000 in tax credits for downtown development to a $686 million transportation bill that would repair 370 miles of state highways and over 100 bridges.

But the jobs issue wasn’t the only economic concern of some Vermonters. Even as Shumlin spoke, Steven Jeffrey of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns issued a news release criticizing the new budget for increasing the state property tax for education to $1.02 billion, up $50 million over last year and about $360 million over a decade.

Jeffrey urged voters to “hold their state leaders accountable during the 2014 election process” by making “reducing state education property taxes the paramount campaign issue.”

Shumlin, who is running for a third term in November, himself raised the property tax issue as he discussed the Legislature’s failure to enact a law to advance consolidation of the state’s 260-plus school districts in order to cut the costs of operating schools that statewide have seen enrollment decline from 120,000 to about 80,000.

“People cannot afford their property taxes,” he said. “School spending is rising faster than their incomes.”

He decried as “a lost opportunity” the Legislature’s failure to agree on an approach to doing away with dozens of school districts but said it was impossible to estimate the savings that administrative consolidation could yield.

Shumlin also reaffirmed his support for Vermont Technical College in Randolph and in its recently hired interim president, who must address a $2.5 million shortfall in a $36 million annual budget: “Dan Smith has the ability to take a messy situation and turn it around.”

Shumlin said the school had an important role to play in preparing students for well-paying manufacturing jobs.

“We’ve got to get VTC on track,” he said. “We’ve got to make technical training sexy again.”

In January, Shumlin devoted the bulk of his state of the state address to calling for action to stem “the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont.”

Shumlin said Tuesday that the Legislature had passed his entire package of legislation to address the opiate issue, and that that would raise state annual spending on treatment and diversion programs from about $7 million two years ago to $12 million in the new budget.

“We are really reinventing the way we deal with addiction in Vermont,” Shumlin said.

The emphasis of the state’s efforts to reduce addiction would shift from law enforcement to treatment, with expanded and professionalized court diversion programs for nonviolent drug offenders, while waiting lists for treatment programs would be eliminated within a year, he said.

Shumlin pledged to proceed with implementing a single-payer health insurance system in time to get the necessary sign-offs from the Obama administration.

He dismissed critics of his failure to meet statutory deadlines to disclose how the state will raise the money pay its new $2-billion insurance tab.

“The folks who are making noise about dates are the folks who don’t want change,” he said.

Shumlin affirmed health care as a “right of citizenship in Vermont” and said that there were “all kinds of ways to replace existing dollars that we spend on premiums with existing dollars that you can raise based on ability to pay.”

His administration had not yet worked out how various ideas would affect different categories of Vermonters, so that “none of (those ideas) are ready for prime time.”

Vermonters who work in other states would continue to be covered by health insurance through their employers but would receive Green Mountain Care cards that might entitle them to additional benefits, he said.

The double burden that might land upon those taxed for health insurance in Vermont even as employers in other states paid premiums for company-sponsored insurance plans might be offset if employers compensated affected employees, he suggested.

Shumlin said he planned to sign a proposed increase in the cigarette tax from $2.62 to $2.75 a pack.

He said the 13-cent hike would be “insignificant,” and doubted that the increase would prompt many smokers to go shopping out of state: “I don’t think 13 cents is going to drive someone one way or the other.”

The tobacco tax in New Hampshire is $1.78 a pack.

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.

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