House Speaker on the fence about return to Vermont Statehouse
MONTPELIER -- For months House Speaker Shap Smith has deflected questions about whether he will run for his seat again. As of Friday he had not yet made a decision.
Smith, a Democrat from Morristown, has served in the House for 12 years - the last six in the Speaker's office.
Though he is a fixture in the Statehouse, Smith insists that the institution is resilient and could cope next year without him even if the House, as he predicts, takes up an overhaul of the income tax code, the property tax formula and financing plans for universal health care in one fell swoop.
"I love the job, and it's very interesting," Smith said. "I have asked work and family the for last 12 years to allow me to have this time, and I just need to decide whether it's time for me to stop asking for that favor."
Smith, who is a lawyer for the Burlington firm Dinse Knapp McAndrew, says it's been hard for him to miss vacations with his wife and two young children during school breaks in February and April. "I know that sounds silly, but it does wear after a while," he said.
Like all lawmakers who take four months out of the year to serve in the Legislature, the Speaker has also sacrificed income, but that fact, he said, is not a deciding factor. "If my life was really about the money, I never would have done this job in the first place," Smith said.
Smith says he is being pressured by members of the Shumlin administration to stay. "The governor has asked me, but he's only one voice out of a number of people who have asked me to stay. It's very flattering. I do love the job, but I want to make sure I'm running for the right reason."
"I want people to understand I do love this job, and I think it's the best job I've every had, and the Legislature is pretty incredible," Smith said. "I like all the people there but I think everybody should understand it's not an indefinite thing. I want to make sure I'm not staying past a time that's good for me or the body."
If he was looking to go out on a high note, the 2014 session could be considered a winner in many respects. The Speaker says the session was "really productive." The Legislature passed a number of bills that critics believed didn't have a chance, he said. The Speaker recited a list off the top of his head: teachers retiree health care stabilization plan, shoreland development regulations, a higher minimum wage, toxic chemical regulation in children's products and a ban on handheld cellphones while driving.
"We came in thinking the property tax would be 7 cents higher (for residential property taxpayers) and it was only 4 cents - more than I would have liked, but less than predicted," Smith said.
Smith also counts the tenor of the session, which he says was remarkably free of real dissension between members, parties and the executive branch, as a success.
"I think this session remained businesslike," Smith said.
The second half of the biennium was a markedly different from the first, largely because Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin treated the House and Senate with more respect and gave in on a number of issues. In the 2013 session, the governor insisted on a budget and tax plan that Democrats couldn't abide because it was impractical and hit the state's poorest residents. Shumlin proposed significant cuts to the state's welfare program, the Earned Income Tax Credit and tax increases from break open tickets (unregulated raffles at bars) and a fee on every health insurance claim. The administration fought tooth and nail for the proposals, which legislators dismissed out of hand. The rancor was intense and in the end both sides got some of what they wanted.
This session the governor touted the Legislature's successes as victories for his administration.
"You can get a lot done of if you don't care who gets credit for it," Smith said. "In the end none of this stuff would have gotten done if the House, Senate and administration were not on the same level."
No vetoes are expected. Smith says he and John Campbell, Senate President Pro Tem, worked with the administration to resolve differences of opinion.
If there is a veto, Smith said it would be because of a technical issue, and if necessary the governor would pull the House and Senate back into session to resolve any problems. But that possibility is unlikely. "I can't see anything in any of the bills that would require that," Smith said.
The next biennium, however, could be much tougher.
Smith says lawmakers will need to address several major issues that were put off in the last biennium, namely an overhaul of K-12 public education system funding and a financing plan for universal health care.
In the last session, the House passed a school district board consolidation plan that was not taken up by the Senate. Proponents said the legislation would have improved opportunities for students and would have created structural changes in education governance that would have led to cost savings down the road.
The House Ways and Means Committee included a provision in the miscellaneous tax bill that sets the stage for a possible shift to an income-based model for funding education.
"As long as there have been schools there have been issues around education costs," Smith said. "We have reached one of those tipping points we see every 15 to 20 years."
Smith says if the state considers a major transition in the way it finances state government, the education funding formula and health care financing could be part of an overhaul of the state's tax structure. He would like to dust off the Vermont Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission's report from 2010, which proposed that the state base the income tax on adjusted gross income rates instead of taxable income. It also included a very low sales tax on nearly all products and services and a tax on the extraction of natural resources, including water.
"I'm not naive enough to think it's not a huge bite of the apple," Smith said. But the Speaker said if the state shifts the education funding model, "it might be an opportunity to shift the whole tax system."
Could Democratic lawmakers pull off that kind of structural change without the speaker who squeaked out two veto overrides in 2009 and faced down Shumlin in 2013?
Smith says the institution has inherent strength - with or without an experienced speaker.
"It helps to have people who know what they're doing, but it's not ultimately necessary," he said.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.