The following Op-Ed was published by Burlington Free Press on August 9, 2016.
Opinion: Consequences of one-party rule
Over the past six years under Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration and House Speaker Shap Smith, Vermont Democrats have exploited their majority status in the Senate and General Assembly to push an unbalanced agenda.
It should come as no surprise, however, that the Democrats routinely circumvented rules and on occasion violated the Constitution to reward special interests and advance pet projects. After all, corruption and cronyism run rampant in states with unchecked one-party rule. The near-total control over the legislative process culminated in the special session, which was convened to decide the fate of the vetoed energy siting bill (S.230).
According to the Vermont Constitution, legislators have but two options with regards to a gubernatorial veto. Each House must reconsider the objections raised by the governor and obtain consent from two-thirds of the members present to override the veto or else the veto remains sustained.
Instead, Democrats drafted and introduced a new bill (S.260) without following the corresponding legislative rules, distributed the proposed language via email, and supplied advocacy letters from Green Mountain Power, Burlington Electric Department and the Public Service Board to lawmakers on the eve of the special session.
To deflect from the inconvenient fact that S.260 had won the approval of powerful wind developers (who have made contributions to Gov. Shumlin and the Democrat Party), the new language was advertised as “simple clarifying changes.” Interestingly, the minor correction needed to be written into law immediately.
Once again, majority Democrats abandoned transparency to privilege donors over taxpayers. Predictably, the new bill does not go far enough to address the health and siting concerns of local communities. The events of the special session undermined the integrity of the legislative process, and represented crony corruption at its worst.
I am deeply disappointed that the governor and Speaker Smith chose to trade political favors instead of attending to the genuine concerns of Vermonters, even as they entered the last phase of their tenure. These actions serve as another example in a long line of bad precedents set by his administration.
Consider the example of Gov. Shumlin’s signature legislation – Vermont Health Connect (VHC). Since its launch three years ago, the project has squandered over $300 million and continues to struggle with dysfunction. In spite of its obvious flaws, the administration kept funneling taxpayer dollars into VHC, all the while dismissing the call by House Republicans for oversight and an immediate third-party audit. Throwing money at the problem did not work. After years of persistent efforts by the Republican lawmakers, Democrats relented and agreed to the long overdue VHC review.
Indeed, the disturbing pattern of wasteful spending can be traced in almost every government initiative. Recent reports reveal that the administration failed to check eligibility before transferring around 30,000 people to the Medicaid program from 2014 to 2016. The income-based Medicaid program costs the state $4,900 per enrollee per year. Gov. Shumlin admitted that the error would cost Vermonters a “couple million bucks” (around $50 million to be more exact). In the past biennium, the Democrat-controlled Legislature increased overall state spending by $165 million, raising $95.3 million in new taxes and fees, and paving the way for larger property tax increases in the future.
The Democrat resistance to critical reform measures further worsens the cycle of overspending and over taxation. For example, Vermonters want the government to reign in the growing education costs. To this end, House Republicans fought hard to instate two-year spending caps for school districts. However, buckling under pressure from the teachers union, majority Democrats held a rare midnight session earlier this year to remove these important cost-containment caps.
The two-party system plays an indispensable role in protecting the voice of the minority and ensuring that the majority maintains accountability for its actions. Over the past three legislative terms, the state has experienced a systemic breakdown in checks and balances, enabling the majority to arbitrarily abuse power at the expense of the best interests of Vermonters.
To ensure that Vermont has a much brighter future, we need to restore integrity and a more balanced government that respects the rule of law, the central institution of a free society, and serves all citizens. Vermonters deserve better than single-party, monopoly rule.
Don Turner of Milton is a Republican state representative and the House minority leader.