Vermont Legislature Adjourns 2015 Session
Vermont lawmakers passed a $5.5 billion budget with $30 million dollars in tax increases before ending their 2015 session Saturday night. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley has a wrap-up.
The final gavel came down in the Senate at 10:23 p.m. Saturday and the House followed at 11:04 p.m. "The member from Bradford moves that the House stand in adjournment. If so all those in favor signify by saying aye. Those opposed nay. The ayes do have it and this body stands in adjournment."
Just prior, Governor Peter Shumlin praised lawmakers for addressing tough issues over the course of the session. "Education reform, clearing up our lakes and waterways, charting a clean greener energy future, closing that $113 million budget gap, helping to protect our most vulnerable Vermonters. These are gigantic issues that have been ignored for too long. Thank you for having the courage to come together to solve the problems that Vermont has sent us here to do."
Despite the governor’s assessment, many reviewing the session are characterizing it as oddly unprecedented. Vermont Digger, an online investigative newspaper, quoted Representative Tony Klein calling it his “craziest” session ever. Digger’s Political Columnist Jon Margolis noted the session began amid chaos and ended in a mood of dissatisfaction. "Well I think it was the temperament or the atmosphere. The governor is not terribly popular. Shumlin and the whole state had to go through this rigamarol the election of the governor by the legislature. And then on the day his inauguration and his inaugural speech in the House chamber, demonstrators invaded the chamber. So you start off the session things just aren’t right. But then of course underlying that even more fundamental is that there was this huge budget gap. And the only thing that the legislature could do was both cut programs, which it doesn’t like to do, and raise taxes, which it doesn’t like to do, and it did both."
"On the substantive matters what overshadowed the entire legislative session was a $113 million budget gap." adds Seven Days Political Editor Paul Heintz. "They were mostly looking at what programs did they have to cut, which ones could they save and most importantly which taxes did they have to raise. That final question was resolved only in the very hours of the legislative session on Saturday. It looked for a little while as if Governor Shumlin was going to veto tax bills that really didn’t square with what he wanted to see. I think everyone realized that a Democratic governor vetoing a democratic legislature’s budget wouldn’t really look too good and it would just prolong this already strange session."
Middlebury College Professor Emeritus of Political Science Eric Davis gives the session a mixed review. "There are some issues which the legislature did address. There was reform passed of the child protection services. Legislation was passed that would remove the philosophical exemption from the vaccination requirement for school children. Gun control laws were slightly tightened to make them consistent with federal law. There was legislation passed dealing with Lake Champlain cleanup which will at least keep the federal government at bay. So those are some of the accomplishments. But in terms of the big issues before the legislature, health care, education and finance I think the legislature ended up not doing very much."
House Speaker Democrat Shap Smith explained that budget challenges grew as the session began. "When we came into the session we had a $93 million gap between anticipated revenues and anticipated expenditures in fiscal year 2016. That expanded when there was a revenue downgrade about five days after the session started or the budget was delivered by another $18 million. I think that the balance that we reached was the right one."
Smith believes that the shadow over the legislative session came more from the difficult issues facing lawmakers. "I do think the arrest of Senator McAllister put a pall on the session at the end. But the difficulty of the issues that we were facing really took some of the usual perhaps levity or I don’t know exactly how to describe it but I think there was a different feel about it, but I think that it was more about just sort of trying to get the work done. I think that in the end it was not as strange as some people suggest it was."
Lawmakers will return for the second half of the biennium in January.
Audio from the Legislative session is from the live web stream courtesy of Vermont Public Radio.