In a day marked by ceremony and substance, lawmakers returned to Montpelier on Tuesday, greeting each other like old classmates and then getting right to work on the vexing issue of health care.
House Speaker Shap Smith banged his gavel shortly after 10 a.m. to call the House to order for the second half of the biennium. The speaker made a reference to the first day of school as he reminded the 150 House members to be on time.
Smith gave a warm greeting to returning lawmakers and welcomed two newcomers to the chamber: Rep. Marjorie Ryerson, D-Randolph and Rep. Kathy Hoyt, D-Norwich. Ryerson replaces Larry Townsend, who died last year, and Hoyt replaces Margaret Cheney, who was appointed to the Public Service Board.
Smith also laid out the challenges and the “to-do” list for the months ahead. He says the list includes resolving a $70 million budget gap and tackling opiate addiction in Vermont. He encouraged lawmakers to learn from the past:
“I think of the second year of the biennium as an opportunity for us to reflect, to reflect on the successes of the past session, to think about what went right, and also to consider what might not have gone as well as we might have hoped,” he said.
Smith later expanded upon his thoughts with VPR's Bob Kinzel during a live broadcast of Vermont Edition; house Republican leader Don Turner and Chris Pearson, the chair of the House Progressive caucus, also joined the show.
The troubled rollout of the Vermont health care exchange was front and center on lawmakers’ minds. And Gov. Peter Shumlin addressed the issue head-on with an unusual first-day appearance before House and Senate health care committees.
The governor called for an independent probe of Vermont Health Connect’s problems. But he also urged lawmakers to keep their eyes on his goal of a single payer health system. Health care, the governor said, is not a website.
“Vermonters did not elect me to nip around the edges of health care and our health care system,” Shumlin said.
The opening session in the Senate was mostly ceremonial, as Lt. Gov. Phil Scott forwarded numerous bills to committee and senators dispersed to those committees to work. In brief remarks, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said lawmakers last year worked across party lines for the benefit of their constituents. "So I hope that we continue that this year," Campbell said.
Elsewhere in the building, legislative pages – eighth graders selected from around the state – donned their green jackets and began ferrying messages to and from lawmakers and their constituents.
And advocates for paid sick leave held a news conference to highlight what they said was the biggest issue facing workers in Vermont.
"This is the year to make paid sick days available for all workers, " said Amanda Sheppard, a homecare provider in Middlebury and member of the Vermont Workers Center and AFSCME Homecare United. "The current system forces us to choose between going to work sick, or losing our income or even our job."
Mary Gerish, elected president of the Vermont Workers' Center, expressed confidence that the group would meet its goal. "This year will be the year we get the prize: a universal system which not only states that healthcare is a human right but guarantees each person in Vermont will be able to exercise that right."