For the past four years, Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe has been chairman of a finance committee that oversees some of the state's most difficult revenue problems. As he prepares for his new role as Senate president pro tem, Ashe says Vermont's budget outlook is cloudier than ever.
Ask Ashe to identify the biggest challenge facing lawmakers in 2017, and he won't need to pause before answering.
"Mitigating the uncertainty of the new Trump administration will be the primary issue facing the Vermont Legislature," Ashe says.
Never in modern history, Ashe says, has there been an incoming presidential administration about which policy makers know so little.
"And in a state like Vermont that is so dependent on the federal government – both from a funding point of view, but also from a policy point of view – it puts all of our decisions in sort of a limbo state," Ashe says.
Ashe says this uncertainty will impact nearly every arena in government. And he says health care, which he considers to be the most pressing policy issue of the time, is particularly vulnerable to changes at the federal level.
"How do we take steps both in terms of access and reforming the way we pay for care at a time when the federal government may dramatically reduce the amount of money it sends to states through the Medicaid program?" Ashe says.
Ashe says lawmakers are going to have to try to figure out the answer. But he says solutions won’t always be close at hand.
"The uncertainty that his administration will be creating will be like a black cloud hanging over the state, over the administration and the Legislature," Ashe says. "And I think it's going to take time for people to fully appreciate that."
For instance, Trump vowed on the campaign trail to repeal and replace the federal Affordable Care Act. If the law disappears altogether, or is defunded by the Republican Congress, Vermont could suddenly lose tens of millions of dollars on which its existing Medicaid program relies.
"There is no way the state of Vermont can backfill all of the money if the Medicaid program were to have dramatic reductions," Ashe says.
No way Vermont can backfill the money, he says, because he doesn’t think lawmakers, the incoming Republican administration of Governor-elect Phil Scott or the public are open to the idea of raising significant new state revenues.
Ashe, who won't become Senate president until the Legislature convenes and holds a formal vote next week, is a Democrat-Progressive. But he says he doesn't hew neatly to any partisan ideology.
And Ashe says that when it comes to resolving what could be as much as a $75 million shortfall in next year's budget, his preference will be to find savings, rather than raise new taxes or overhaul the tax code.
"I'm not sure that Vermont's Legislature, business community and public is ready to really think about our tax system in a transformative way," he says.
Ashe says progress on economic and social issues in Montpelier will to some degree hinge on the relationship between the Democratically-controlled Legislature and the Republican administration.
"One of the things that I’m really committed to out of the gates is making sure that we're not making assumptions about what the new governor will or will not favor in terms of policy, but make sure we have really strong communication lines," Ashe says.
— Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe
With those clear lines of communication in place, Ashe says lawmakers can make better decisions about whatever policy issues gain traction in the next legislative biennium.
"So, as a Senate – and the House will have to be doing the same exercise – we'll have to be thinking which things we're ready to push to a showdown with the new governor," Ashe says.
The Legislature generally adjourns for the year sometime in May. Ashe says lawmakers may need to consider holding a special session in the fall if changes at the federal level impact state budgets in Vermont.