MONTPELIER, Vermont — More than 100 demonstrators rallied at the State House on Thursday — some disrupting the governor's inauguration — to let him know that they were upset with his decision not to ask lawmakers this year for a plan to pay for a new universal health care system.
Twenty-nine protesters were arrested on charges of unlawful trespass after they were asked to leave but didn't.
Chanting and singing could be heard in the hallways throughout much of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin's inaugural address. It spilled into the House chamber at various moments, including during the concluding benediction given by the Rev. Robert Potter, of the Peacham Congregational Church, who altered his remarks in several spots to respond to the protesters.
He drew cheers from lawmakers when he said, "When I think of what other counties do to silence differences, aren't you glad you're in America?"
But the tension in the chamber was palpable. Breaking with tradition, the governor was not escorted out the front of the chamber after his inaugural speech, instead leaving through a rear entrance leading through the House clerks' offices.
After much of Potter's talk was drowned out by the protesters, several lawmakers said afterward that the universal health care advocates had set their cause back.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, approached Ellen Schwartz, of Brattleboro, president of the Vermont Workers' Center, and angrily told her the protesters' performance was "rude, it was disrespectful, inappropriate."
Schwartz responded in an interview that single-payer advocates were frustrated.
"The governor has been saying this is not the right time," Schwartz said. "For people who don't have health care, this is the right time. People are feeling like we have to move forward now. We've collected petitions. We've done a lot of following those processes. Where has it gotten us?"
The protesters may get part of what they want: a public hearing on issues surrounding a universal health care system. House Speaker Shap Smith, a Democrat, said he expected such a hearing.
Shumlin announced Dec. 17 that he was dropping his long-sought goal because it would have required tax increases too big to impose on residents and businesses.
During his inaugural address, Shumlin vowed to continue working to control health care costs. He also has said he is open to suggestions from lawmakers for how to finance a publicly funded universal health care system.
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