About the Governor’s war on drugs

Last week, Governor Shumlin confined his State of the State address to a single issue: the growing problem of opioid (DAMN, that’s hard to spell) abuse in Vermont. Some critics, like House Minority Leader Don Turner, groused that it wasn’t a “real” SotS:

“My question is…what is the “state of the state?”” said House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner (R-Chittenden). “…what about the rest of the issues that we deal with?

Yeah, yeah. As if Turner would have accepted Shumlin’s assessment at face value. No, I don’t particularly care about the SotS “tradition.” The speech is a marker for the opening of the new Legislative session, but it doesn’t necessarily have any impact on the flow of debate. Neither do I see a whole lot of value in deviating from the tradition; Shumlin could just have easily done a regular SotS and a separate address on drugs. That would have done just as much to cement the issue at the top of his agenda.

So, on the process question, I profess ambivalence. Now, on to the substance.

The problem of opioid addiction has been a significant one in Vermont for quite a long time. And if Shumlin’s rather appalling statistics are on the mark (I have no reason to doubt him), it’s gotten a whole lot worse in the last dozen or so years.

(Hmmmm… and who was Governor for most of that time? I do believe it was the Patron Saint of Vermont Republicanism, Jim Douglas. Living down to Peter Freyne’s monicker of “Doesless,” eh Jim?)

So I applaud Governor Shumlin for putting the issue in the spotlight and vowing to tackle it with something more than the umpty-billionth “crackdown” that does nothing more than overcrowd our prisons. Although, as Seven Days was maybe the only news outlet to notice, Shumlin’s plan does have a “tough on crime” element as well as a new emphasis on treatment and prevention. But overall, it’s a welcome development.

But it’s only the first step. We’ve seen gubernatorial flagships run aground on the rocky shoals of legislative reality before. Indeed, we saw it last year, when Shumlin’s energy efficiency and welfare reform plans hit the ol’ iceberg and sank.

So moving opioid addiction to the front burner in his SotS is only the first step. Many obstacles remain. Here they are, in rough chronological order:  

— The Governor’s budget address. Last year’s high-profile initiatives came a cropper when Shumlin yoked them to wacky (break-open ticket tax) or unacceptable (slashing the Earned Income Tax Credit) funding schemes. In a year when the state already faces a big budget gap and Shumlin has vowed to hold the line on broad-based tax increases*, I fear that he’ll go back to that Well of Bad Ideas and either propose a Rube Goldberg scheme that’ll fall on deaf ears under the Dome, or take money away from needed programs to fund new initiatives. In the inverted words of the old saying, he’ll rob Paul to pay for Peter. Which leads to the second iceberg in the path of S.S. Opioid Treatment And Prevention…

*Meaning, as always, tax increases he doesn’t like.

— The Legislature.  The State of the State address generates a lot of media coverage, but it doesn’t really move the dial in the People’s House. Lawmakers need a lot of convincing. And even though the Governor has a supermajority in the Legislature, his priorities are often given the cold shoulder. If he really wants his drug plan to go through, he’ll have to do a lot of convincing. In the past, he’s fallen short on the follow-through. Which leads to the third iceberg…

— The Governor’s short attention span. This may be spectacularly unfair, but: my impression is that Shumlin is red-hot on launching new policy ventures, but isn’t as focused on the hard work of convincing other people. This is a little bit odd from someone who rose through the legislative ranks; you’d think he, of all people, ought to be comfortable with the glad-handing and arm-twisting needed to get lawmakers on his side.

The Governor has frequently acknowledged his dyslexia. Looking from the outside, this amateur psychiatrist would say that he also has a touch of ADD/ADHD. Whether or not that’s true, he pretty clearly has more energy than patience. If he truly wants his drug plan to take effect, he’ll have to get in the trenches in February and March.

As for the fourth iceberg…

— Money. Based on past experience and his stated budget priorities, I suspect the Governor will come up with a funding plan that won’t please the Legislature. Last year, he refused to budge when his fellow Democrats devised their own funding schemes; indeed, he preferred to let his proposals sink rather than accept their funding plan. We’re certainly set up for the same thing to happen this year. Hopefully the Governor learned a lesson from last time: Don’t blindside your fellow Democrats with iffy funding plans and expect them to follow happily along. Hopefully he has either worked with legislative leaders to develop a funding plan, or he’s at least kept them in the loop this time around.

And now, the fourth and a half – and biggest – iceberg…

— Will we end up with a shadow of an effective plan? Without digging into the details of the opioid issue, I wonder whether the dollars Shumlin proposes are sufficient. The single biggest problem re: opioids is the lack of treatment opportunities. Well, if we’ve already got lengthy waiting lists, what happens when we start aggressively diverting offenders into treatment? I wonder.

And I wonder even more about the outcome in the Legislature. If the Governor and lawmakers get into a tussle over funding, then the easiest way out is to hack and slash. I doubt that there’s any fat on Shumlin’s proposal; if we wind up with some fraction of his plan, then it won’t be enough.

The worst possible outcome may well be the most likely: Lawmakers will conclude that attacking drug abuse is a good idea, but we simply can’t afford it right now. (How often have we heard that one?) They’ll kill most or all of the treatment side and approve the politically-safe “tough on crime” aspect. We’ll wind up with stiffer penalties for out-of-state drug dealers and for those who commit crimes with guns, but not much else.

If so, the State of the State Address will have been a wasted opportunity. And opioids will continue to be a scourge in Vermont communities large and small.  

3 thoughts on “About the Governor’s war on drugs

  1. In terms of the validity of the statistics that the Governor cited about drug use in Vermont, readers might want to check out Taylor Dobbs piece on VPR about the numbers and context behind the statistics.

    The number of people treated has risen so much because our treatment capacity has risen, which is good. Apparently, to the extent that we can measure heroin or opiate use, they may have declined slightly.

    We have a drug problem and the policies proposed are worth considering and probably implementing in some form, but let us keep the problem in perspective. We do not need to exaggerate problems nor should we exaggerate our ability to actually solve them.

    I agree about the short attention span — it isn’t enough to have innovative proposals and good intentions. Not only does the Legislature have to agree, but then the Administration has to actually implement the program, which may be the hardest part. See Vermont Health Connect, Community Based System of Mental Health, etc …  

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

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