MONTPELIER — In a speech that was free of protests, Gov. Peter Shumlin offered direction for his final year in office, with Republicans complaining he is ignoring the plight of property tax payers and state finances.
It was one year ago during Shumlin’s 2015 State of the State Address when hundreds of protestors flooded the State House to protest his abandonment of a single-payer health care system. On Thursday, a very visible police presence screened people entering the building and prevented the general public from entering the balcony of the House Chamber.
Perhaps it was the lack of an issue to protest, or the upcoming appearance of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, but either way, Shumlin’s speech Thursday featured an absence of chanting and banners.
And Shumlin’s speech erased any thoughts he sees himself as a lame-duck governor, as he outlined proposals touching on education, opiates and marijuana legalization.
“From day one, I made it clear that I didn’t run for this office to be a caretaker. I ran to get tough things done,” Shumlin said, touting successes that included in expanding renewable energy and opiate treatment. “Vermont is a better place to live, work and raise a family than it was when we began.”
During the past week, Shumlin launched a website outlining improvements across all aspects of Vermont life, from the economy and jobs to roads and bridges. However, His final State of the State Address was anything but a victory lap.
Among the things he would like to get done during the coming months is the passage of a bill requiring employers to grant workers paid sick leave. The bill has already passed the House and now rests with the Senate.
“Vermonters who are sick should not have to choose between going to work or losing their job,” Shumlin said.
The governor also called on the state to divest from investments in fossil fuel companies, calling for an outright withdrawal from coal and to study divestment in what he called “big oil.”
“Owning ExxonMobil stock is not a business Vermont should be in,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin also took a moment to honor the family of Lara Sobel – an employee with the Department for Children and Families who was shot dead in August – as an opportunity to call for more DCF workers, and increased protections for them.
Shumlin touched on education, first by calling for the state to give every child born in Vermont $250 – or $500 if they come from a low-income household – to start college savings accounts.
Shumlin also called on lawmakers to postpone or repeal education spending thresholds imposed by Act 46, the school district merger law passed during the last session.
And returning to the main theme of his 2014 State of the State Address, Shumlin again addressed the state’s opiate epidemic, calling for a law to limit the number of pills a doctor can prescribe for pain management for a minor procedure to 10.
Lastly, Shumlin called for marijuana legalization, predicated on a number of factors, including a ban on the sale of edible products; steps to keep it out the hands of children; low taxes so legal weed can not only compete with but eliminate the black market altogether; increased law enforcement to curb stoned driving; and revenue generated through taxes be used on drug treatment.
While Shumlin did not face the hostile crowd he did one year ago and was able to exit the House Chamber the same way he came in, following the speech, Republican lawmakers gathered to offer their criticism.
“We heard nothing about the status of Vermont Health Connect. We all know there are multiple problems,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner, D-Milton. “We did not hear one word about the status of state finances, which we all know are dire.”
Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, also took Shumlin to task for what the speech did not include.
“Today, we heard virtually nothing about the plight of property taxpayers in Vermont,” Wright said. “Yes, we have a serious issue with opiates and abuse, but we also have a property taxpayer affordability epidemic in the state of Vermont.”
Wright also criticized Shumlin’s call to postpone or repeal the school spending thresholds.
“The one thing that actually provided cost containment in Act 46, he wants to repeal,” Wright said. “I, like many Vermonters, have lost confidence in this governor. His rhetoric does not match his actions.”
Rep. Paul Dame, R-Essex Junction, argued that money for new initiatives such as increased DCF staff and money for college savings accounts should come at the expense of other, less important programs.
“If we want these programs, where are we spending on things that are less important?” Dame asked. “We need to prioritize our spending.”
Shumlin will deliver his budget address later this month.