TOBY TALBOT / AP PHOTO
Sugar-sweetened drinks are displayed at a store in Vermont.
MONTPELIER — A Vermont House committee on Friday voted to kill legislation that would have levied a new tax on sugary soft drinks to pay for public health education and to help smooth the transition to a health care overhaul.
In a move that drew the comment “Holy smokes!” from Sen. Virginia Lyons, a member of the Senate Health and Welfare committee, the House Health Care Committee voted 5-5, with one member absent, on the measure. The tie killed the bill the committee had spent weeks drafting.
“It’s frustrating,” said Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln and chairman of the House panel. “The committee spent a lot of time and took majority votes on a number of steps along the way and there were a few members of the committee who couldn’t support the bill because of how much it did, and there were a few members of the committee that couldn’t support the bill because they ... wish it had done more. ... I think right now everything’s dead.”
The vote creates a new cloud of uncertainty over efforts by the Legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin to solve what has become one of the key riddles of the current legislative session: how to move to the new health care marketplace, or exchange, called for under the federal Affordable Care Act, without hurting people who had been enjoying state subsidized health care.
Vermont has two publicly subsidized health insurance programs geared to providing coverage to low- and moderate-income working people and families: the Vermont Health Access Plan and Catamount Health. Lawmakers and advocates have been raising an alarm for months that many of the people enrolled in those programs face steep increases in the cost of health insurance, because federal subsidies under the exchange will not be as generous as what the state has been offering.
Members of the House committee had reviewed charts in recent weeks from legislative fiscal analysts showing a wide range of impacts from the switch from the state programs to the exchange, depending on income and size of household. Some families would be hit hard. One chart offered the example of a single parent with two children, who could see a monthly premium increase of $256, more than doubling the current premium of $208.
Shumlin’s administration proposed trying to partially close the gap between state and federal subsidies; the House panel tinkered with the amounts and with the mix of premium subsidies versus those that help people pay out-of-pocket costs like co-pays and deductibles.
Friday’s committee vote left those efforts in doubt, Fisher said.
“It’s very disappointing for low-income people,” he said. “I think in some members’ attempt to get more, they’re ending up with nothing.”
Fisher called for the vote even in the absence of a key supporter of several of the bill’s provisions, Rep. George Till, D-Jericho. Till is an obstetrician-gynecologist and had to leave shortly before the vote for a medical emergency, committee members said. A page later sent to Till drew no immediate response.
Asked why he allowed the vote to proceed, Fisher said: “The committee needed to move forward. A member committee got up and left at the last minute; I can’t account for that.”
Other committee members and some lobbyists disagreed with Fisher’s assessment that the bill was dead. Tina Zuk of the American Heart Association said her group would continue pushing for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which the AHA and other groups blame for increasing obesity.
Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, said the beverage tax could be taken up separately by the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee still will weigh the administration’s proposals on health insurance subsidies.
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