Gruber Scandal May Affect State Legislature’s Selection of Next Governor in Vermont

Gruber Scandal May Affect State Legislature’s Selection of Next Governor in Vermont

Jonathan Gruber’s testimony on December 9 before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on health law deception could help determine who becomes the next governor of Vermont.

Since incumbent Governor Peter Shumlin (D-VT) failed to obtain more than 50 percent of the vote in the general election in November, the selection of the the state’s next governor now lies in the hands of the state legislature. Under Vermont’s state constitution, the state legislature selects the governor when no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote.

Shumlin, who was favored by 12 points in the pre-election polls, narrowly won the popular vote over Republican challenger Scott Milne, 47 percent to 46 percent. Despite outspending Milne by a significant margin, Shumlin barely avoided, at least temporarily, becoming the first incumbent governor of Vermont to lose a re-election bid in more than half a century. 

Gruber, the MIT professor and “architect” of Obamacare who said that American voters are “stupid” and need to be deceived about the true character of the law on tape, has played a key role in Governor Shumlin’s efforts to introduce single payer health care to Vermont. Gruber had his pay cut in the July 2014 contract he signed with the State of Vermont to project the financial impact of Green Mountain Care on the state. Gruber is scheduled to help the Shumlin administration present its plan to the state legislature on January 15, 2015.

That presentation is scheduled to come just a few days after the state legislature meets in early January to select the new governor by secret ballot. Republican challenger Scott Milne may have a chance to become only the second person in the State’s history to be named governor of the state despite coming in second place in the popular vote.

The Shumlin administration’s poor handling of the Green Mountain Care single payer health care plan implementation and its fumbling of the Gruber contract have increased distrust of the administration’s transparency in a state with a long tradition of good government.

Milne’s chances of winning the secret ballot remain distant, given the lopsided Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature. When the new legislature convenes in January, only 53 of the 150 members of the House and 9 of the 30 members of the State Senate will be Republican. That total of 62 out of the combined 180 votes that will be cast to select the new governor falls 29 short of the 91 Milne would need to defeat Shumlin.

But public unhappiness surrounding the details of Green Mountain Care, enacted into law in 2011 as Act 48 during Shumlin’s first year as governor, has some historical parallels to the political turmoil surrounding the 1853 contest for governor, the only time in the state’s history the legislature selected the second place finisher to be the next governor.

In 1853, Democrat John Robinson lost the popular vote to incumbent Whig Governor Erastus Fairbanks, by more than 2,000 votes, 20,849 to 18,142. But the presence of a Republican candidate, who won 8,291 votes, kept Fairbanks’s plurality well below the 50 percent required by the margin for outright election.

When the state legislature met to select the next governor, there was considerable unhappiness with the passage of a state prohibition law during the previous year of Fairbanks’s administration. That unhappiness caused several legislators who would normally have been Fairbanks allies to swing their votes to the Democrat Robinson.

Robinson served a single one-year term, and was defeated by Whig/Republican Stephen Joyce in 1854, the beginning of a 110 year string of Republican governors in the state, broken only in 1962 when Democrat Phillip Hoff was elected. (The state’s constitution was amended in 1870 to increase the governor’s term to two years.)

Though there are some similarities more than a century and a half later, public unhappiness with Green Mountain Care, has not yet reached the same level of unhappiness the public had with prohibition in 1853. The 2011 single-payer law, for instance, passed both houses in the state legislature by a 2 to 1 margin. 

But public support for Green Mountain Care has steadily declined in Vermont, a very blue state in the early 21st century with a markedly different political philosophy from the independent Republicanism of the century between Erastus Fairbank in 1853 and Phillip Hoff in 1962, since that high water mark. In fact, a poll paid for by the Vermont National Education Association and conducted in January 2014 showed that support for Green Mountain Care had dropped to 55 percent in favor, 42 percent opposed.

That poll was conducted before the state’s Obamacare health care exchange, Vermont Health Connect, was forced to shut down its website for several months over the summer due to its inability to function properly. Difficulties with the website have only served to enhance public concern about the Shumlin administration’s capability to competently administer yet another new health care program.

Whether or not Vermont can afford Shumlin’s Green Mountain Care is now a question Democrats as well as Republicans in Vermont are asking.

As Sally Pipes, a health care expert at the Pacific Research Institute wrote Monday at National Review, “[e]ven if the state could figure out how to operate a single-payer system, it wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Pipes points out that “[a] 2013 University of Massachusetts study commissioned by the state concluded that Vermont would have to come up with $1.6 billion in new revenue every year to pay for the plan. Now the state estimates that single payer will take $1.7 billion to $2.2 billion in additional annual revenue.”

Pipes poses a question sure to be on the minds of Vermont state legislators regardless of party affiliation in January.

“Vermont collects $2.7 billion a year in taxes,” she notes. “How does it expect to boost its tax take by 80 percent to pay for single payer?”

Despite increasing anxiety around the state about the practicality of Green Mountain Care, most political pundits familiar with Vermont politics believe Milne’s likely 29 vote deficit in the state legislature is simply too big to overcome over the next month.

But the Shumlin administration, which has been beset by a number of other scandals besides the Gruber contract, may be just one major scandal away from completely destroying public trust.

Professor Gruber’s upcoming testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on December 9 might provide more fuel to the fire for Shumlin critics. By itself, that testimony may not generate enough heat to sway 29 Democrat and Independent legislators to switch their vote in January from Shumlin to Milne.

But in politics, one month can be a long time. 

Over four years, the Shumlin administration has benefited from a local Vermont media that has been largely disinterested in any serious investigative reporting of its conduct. Now, with much of the nation’s media focused on the testimony of Professor Gruber, it is entirely possible that some new light may be shed on previously unreported problems in the Shumlin administration.

Democrats in Vermont are collectively holding their breath that this heightened interest in the Shumlin administration will not yield any new controversies before the state legislature convenes to pick the next governor in January.


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