Balance shifts on health care committee
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | December 14,2013
MONTPELIER — The balance of power in the House Committee on Health Care will shift in favor of Democrats next year when House Speaker Shap Smith drops a Republican from the 11-person panel and replaces him with a member of the ruling party.
Gone from the committee, Smith said late Friday evening, is Rep. John Mitchell, a Republican from Fairfax now headed to the House Committee on Education. Replacing him is incoming Democratic Rep. Kathy Hoyt, appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year to replace the seat vacated by Margaret Cheney.
House Speaker Shap Smith said the move is designed to make way for a newly minted lawmaker whose “breadth and depth of experience are critically important as we move forward with health care reform.”
House Minority Leader Don Turner, however, said the shake up amounts to partisan maneuvering designed to undermine the influence of the GOP as the Democratic supermajority prepares to face tough questions over the troubled roll out of the new health insurance exchange.
“I’m very concerned and I’m very disappointed,” Turner said late Friday evening. “I think Vermonters will see through this – that Democrats don’t like tough questions when it comes to health care, and that by taking away a person who is asking those like tough questions may make it easier for them.”
The personnel change comes during the middle of the two-year biennium, and isn’t the only reassignment Smith confirmed Friday.
Rep. Patti Lewis, a Berlin Republican, will move from education to the House Committee on Government Operations. Incoming Democratic Rep. Margie Ryerson, who filled the Randolph seat opened up by the death of Larry Townsend, will be assigned to the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Rep. Rebecca Ellis, a Waterbury Democrat, will take over as vice-chairwoman of energy and natural resources, a position formerly held by Cheney.
Hoyt, who lives in Norwich, has a long career in government that includes stints as secretary of administration under former Govs. Madeline Kunin and Howard Dean. She was a also a member of a three-person panel that spent more than a year examining ways to overhaul the state’s tax structure.
With his “direct appointment” of Hoyt in September, Shumlin bypassed the conventional nominating process in which the local party committee forwards three names to the governor’s desk. Hoyt’s predecessor left when she accepted Shumlin’s appointment to a seat on the three-person Public Service Board.
“(Hoyt) is someone who has seen state government from every angle, and her experience will be invaluable on that committee,” Smith said.
Turner said that if Smith wanted to find room for Hoyt on the committee, he could have done so without eroding what little representation the GOP has on a panel that will be dealing next year not only with the exchange, but with the seeds of a public financing system for the single-payer system Shumlin has said will come online by 2017.
“I think it’s wrong,” Turner said. “I just don’t like that we’re going to have only two Republicans on one of the most important committees in the House right now.”
Smith said the composition of the Health Care Committee during the last session wasn’t reflective of the partisan make-up of the body. The six Democrats, one Progressive, one independent and three Republicans, Smith said, didn’t mirror the near super-majority status of his party.
“It’s 6-5 committee right now, and the balance is different than most of the other committees, and that plays a role in the decision,” Smith said. “And it’s not an easy decision.”
That narrow margin led to some very public setbacks last session for the committee’s Democratic chairman, who saw his committee go against him on at least one high-profile vote.
Rep. Mary Morrissey, who will be one of two Republicans left on the Health Care Committee, said the change “disrespects” the work that Mitchell and the committee have done over the first half of the session.
Turner said he appreciated that the speaker called him earlier this week to inform him of his plan, and that Smith was willing to work with Republicans in determining which of the three would be sent to the education committee.
Turner said he thinks Hoyt’s experience on the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission, the panel that worked in 2009 to try to reform the income and sales tax, is one of the reasons Smith wants her on health care.
“From my perspective, I think they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to do single-payer,” Turner said. “And being a former member of that commission, I’m sure she has a lot of information about taxation.”
Smith said Hoyt’s facility with the tax code is one reason among many she’ll be a good fit on the committee.
“Certainly it helps that she was on the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission,” Smith said. “But it really is the breadth and depth of her experience.”
Darcie Johnston, head of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, which working to stymie progress toward single-payer, said the committee reassignments underscore the urgency of the opposition.
“This is a clearly partisan political move to rearrange the deck chairs to get the political result they want of moving single payer health care forward,” she said.