On The Record: Vermont Senate President Peter Shumlin

Vermont Senate President Peter Shumlin is on the run these days, literally. Besides running for lieutenant governor, he is leading a coalition of northeastern lawmakers trying to control prescription drug prices.

Despite his busy agenda, Democrat Shumlin found time to talk to Stateline.org about healthcare, education and other issues during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.

STATELINE.ORG: (Vermont) Gov. Howard Dean has said he is not keen about accepting federal education funds because there are too many strings attached, and not enough of a benefit for the state. What's the read on that in the Legislature?

Shumlin: The governor has a concern that a lot of Vermonters share. Every time we get federal mandates without dollars attached, it often costs us more than it saves us. In Vermont we've been on the cutting edge of educational testing and assessing our students. We happen to have chosen grade levels that don't comply with the federal standards. So we've made the investment, it's working and now we're going to ask our hard-working teachers to implement an entirely new system at a cost that we think will exceed the benefit? Gov. Dean has had the courage to raise significant concerns.

STATELINE.ORG: What role would the Legislature play in taking a stand on the issue?

Shumlin: There's bipartisan concern that the governor is right (but) we have not yet weighed in. There are signals (though) that a lot of Vermonters, Republicans and Democrats, distrust the notion that federal dollars are going to be used to tell us how to run our schools.

STATELINE.ORG: What is your take on the accusation that Gov. Dean is using the issue to grandstand politically, given rumors he may run for President?

Shumlin: I don't think it's fair. In my own experience, I'm running for Lieutenant Governor. I've been fighting for fair prescription drug prices for 13 years. Now when I pick up the (paper) and we're working on a bill, people say Shumlin wants this because he's running for Lieutenant Governor.' The governor has the same problem, running for President. Anything he says on a national level is going to be interpreted as political. My experience with Howard Dean is he puts Vermont first, his first job is to be our governor and that's what he's doing now.

STATELINE.ORG: You sponsored a sweeping and controversial prescription drug bill this session. Where do things stand on the measure?

Shumlin: It's in conference, I chair that conference committee and I'm optimistic we'll get a bill. It's the first comprehensive bill that takes all the tools utilized by other states to bring about fair prices and uses them in Vermont. We use the additional manufacturer rebates Jeb Bush (negotiated for Florida), we use the Illinois (Medicaid) waiver, we use the Healthy Maine Medicaid card program, and four or five other pieces (that have worked in various states).

The piece we've added is to take on the insidious relationship between the advertising the industry does on prime-time televisionan investment that exceeds their research and development costsand the direct marketing to physicians. The industry is now spending, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, $22,000 annually on every doctor in Vermont for direct marketing. What we're doing (in the proposed measure) is licensing those marketers and asking them to disclose when they send our doctors on lavish trips to Jamaica, conferences that are expensive, or enter into questionable contracts with them for research on prescription drugs already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We're trying to find a way to basically let the public know there is a relationship between the ads they see on TV, the direct marketing to physicians and the high costs people are paying for the drugs.

STATELINE.ORG: What made you decide to take on the marketing end of the pharmaceutical industry?

Shumlin: States are going to be the incubators for ideas to bring about fair prices. We all agree, Republicans and Democrats, that Congress isn't going to solve this problem. They're taking more money from the industry for their campaigns, both parties, than any other industry in the country. The states are stuck paying the bill. Our Medicaid budget in Vermont has gone up 60 percent for prescription drugs in the last four years. All of our states are sharing that pain. We have the incentive to say enough is enough.' If the rest of the world we're competing with for jobs everyday can get a fair price for prescription drugs, it's time we got it too.

Our taxpayers at the state level are being squeezed with high unemployment, job lay-offs, getting food on the table for their kids and prescription drug prices that cannot be sustained. We're saying as states we need to come up with the idea that will take this industry on. Our idea is just another piece that will help in the tool chest. PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) is fighting it tooth and nail. They have every lobbyist around (up in Vermont) trying to kill this idea because they know if we pass it, it will be just like the other tools in the tool chest that we're utilizing in our bill, it will spread across the country. This is a war we're waging against fundamentally good companies who are charging us too much money. We're going to take it battle by battle and I think we're going to win in the end because we're on the side of the angels and they're on the side of greed.

STATELINE.ORG: The Legislature just approved (5/14) a medical marijuana measure. What other big issues have you dealt with this year?

Shumlin: We're dealing with education funding, many states are struggling with that question. We've been dealing with bringing about fair pricing for prescription drugs, we passed a bill to promote alternative energy resources in Vermont. We've been grappling with sagging revenues which has made the budget a real challenge. We've been grappling with tax issues, and we just raised our cigarette tax 67 cents to help pay for prescription drugs for the commitments we've already made to elderly Vermonters.

But our most important legislative effort is to bring about fair prices for prescription drugs, and we've got bipartisan commitment to try and make that happen.

STATELINE.ORG: How does your Lieutenant Governor race look?

Shumlin: It's interesting. I'm working hard. Truthfully I'm trying to be Senate President first and candidate for Lt. Governor second. But I think I have a good chance of winning. I'm the only candidate running who has any experience in elected office. One of my opponents has lost 5 races; the other has lost 1. I'm the only candidate that has the experience, the vision and I hope the energy to really be ready to serve in the number two job in the state of Vermont.

STATELINE.ORG: What issues will you tackle should you win the Lt. Gov. post?

Shumlin: There are three things I'm going to focus on like a laser beam. The first is bringing about fair prices for prescription drugs. I will not rest until Vermonters can leave their passports at home and still get a fair price for prescription drugs.

The second issue is juvenile justice. We have in Vermont 1 in 7 of our young men between the ages of 18 and 21 in prison or under the supervision of the Dept. of Corrections. The number of women is rising quickly. I am committed to ensuring that we're not a society that has 1 in 7 of our kids going into our corrections system.

The third is job creation. I'm a businessperson when I'm not a Senator. I've been meeting a payroll since I was 23 years old. I've created a lot of jobs myself in the private sector. Vermont has to be much more aggressive about bringing particularly high-tech jobs to the state and ensuring that our businesses are growing, not leaving the state.

STATELINE.ORG: How would you feel about leaving your state legislator job, if you win the Lt. Governor post?

Shumlin: It's tough. I've been in the Legislature for 13 years and I've enjoyed it immensely. But I do think as Lt. Governor, I can have more impact on statewide policy, so I'm excited about the prospect of the race.