- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Some say he’s down. Some say he’s out. Gov. Peter Shumlin says he’s neither.

As the Legislature prepared to enter the final weeks of the 2015 session, the Democratic governor this past week offered an upbeat assessment of progress on his agenda.

House passage of bills to consolidate school districts, clean up Lake Champlain and other state waters, and to improve the state’s renewable energy posture while pushing home heating efficiency are all signs he’s bounced back from a near defeat in November’s election, Shumlin said.

“As a governor who probably went out with as ambitious an agenda, maybe more, as the 50 states, I’m incredibly encouraged by where the Legislature is on all those initiatives,” he said.

But it appears Shumlin will get just a fraction of the $90 million he asked for from his proposal for a new payroll tax to shore up Medicaid payments to health providers - if he gets anything at all.

His package of economic development and job-creation initiatives was significantly trimmed back in the Senate. Shumlin’s fellow Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, called it “half a win.”

With a teachers’ strike for five days in October in the South Burlington school district fresh in mind, Shumlin called in January for Vermont to join the roughly three dozen other states that ban such strikes. That proposal died in the House after a full-court lobbying press by the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association.

Shumlin has been cool to any new state restrictions on firearms ownership. But on Friday, the House passed its version of a Senate-passed bill making possession of firearms by many convicted felons a violation of state law for the first time, and requiring reporting to a federal background check database when someone is found by a court to be dangerously mentally ill.

For a governor dealing with a Legislature dominated by his fellow Democrats, the record so far this year appears mixed at best. There’s widespread speculation that Shumlin was weakened by November’s shocking election result.

Shumlin, 59, was widely expected to win his third two-year term in a cakewalk over Scott Milne, a travel business owner from Pomfret with little name recognition who made a last-minute entry into the race in June and got outspent by about $700,000.

Instead, a low-turnout race ended with Shumlin getting 46.4 percent to 45.1 for Milne, with the balance shared by five other candidates. Since no one got a majority, the Legislature had to decide the election in January, in accordance with the Vermont Constitution.

Post-mortems focused on public anger about rising school property taxes at a time of shrinking student numbers, and the administration’s bungling of the rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the web-based state insurance marketplace set up under the federal Affordable Care Act.

In December, Shumlin put on hold indefinitely the central goal of his governorship - moving Vermont toward a universal, government-backed health care system often referred to as single-payer. After months of number-crunching, his health care team had determined that it would be too expensive for the state’s economy to absorb, the governor said.

Part of Shumlin’s problem is his tendency to over-promise, said Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington.

“I believe that the governor is weakened, and it is because he made a series of promises to various political constituencies that he would do certain things,” Browning said. “And those promises were sincere, but they weren’t based on reality. His promises were based on ideology and wishful thinking. They were not based on reality, and now reality is biting back.”

The result, said Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive: “He’s got no juice.”

Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, said the governor’s political future looks dim. “I just can’t see that he’s going to run again. I think he’s going to have a very hard time trying to get people excited,” Till said.

In an interview Friday, Shumlin said he wasn’t ready to announce his campaign for a fourth term in 2016. “What I’m focused in doing the job I was hired to do for 24 months,” he said.

But he made his intentions clear: “I love being governor … My intention is to serve as long as we can continue to make a difference. We’re making a difference.”

Some in the Legislature pointed to Vermont’s slow economic recovery as the real reason for a trimmed-back legislative agenda, and said it’s too early to count Shumlin out.

The legislative end-game, when Shumlin and other governors have been known to call lawmakers into the office one-by-one and press the executive branch agenda, has yet to begin, said Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland and chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee.

Baruth said anyone subscribing to the idea Shumlin is weakened does so “at their peril.”

“He’s a supremely talented politician,” Baruth said. “So he had a bad election, but I don’t think it’s going to keep him from getting plenty of wins on the scoreboard this session.”

Shumlin advised: “Judge us by what we get done.”

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