© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Middlebury College political scientist previews upcoming Vermont legislative session

Middlebury College Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson
Middlebury College
Middlebury College Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson

Vermont legislators return to Montpelier next week. The Democrats/Progressives hold a supermajority. In the first half of the biennium, they overturned several of Republican Governor Phil Scott’s vetoes. Since the chambers adjourned in May, the state experienced catastrophic flooding In July and severe floods in December, straining resources and finances.

Middlebury College Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley he expects two things to define the upcoming session:

One is that there is a decline in federal aid coming in so the budget will have to adjust accordingly. And second, it's an election year. And that has to be in the back of everybody's minds as they finish up the biennium.


So with that budgetary concern and the fact that it's an election year, what kind of dynamics are going to be going on with the bills and with the budget in particular?


Well, I think that the big-ticket items that we may have heard about in past years such as universal paid family leave, for example, are probably not going to come up in a big way this session. And what will characterize the budget fights is, you know, the priorities over where to spend the money that that we do have. I think the budget numbers are not coming in terrible relative to pre-pandemic years. But there's still going to be a crunch relative to what we had during the last few years.


How much will the issue of taxes and fees come up? Because at the end of the last session, the governor was really criticizing the legislature for all of the new fees and taxes that the legislature had passed in the first part of the biennium.


Yeah and I think that is a spot where the Democrats may be vulnerable and Phil Scott, presumably campaigning for reelection, is probably going to hit them on that. Now they do have a supermajority so they could override a veto. But it might not look good for the fall campaign to have Democrats overriding Republican vetoes of higher taxes.


We also have had, we thought we were going to have, one major flood in July. But then in December we got a resurgence of flooding, although not quite as bad as in July. How is recovery from the July and December flooding going to impact both budgetary consideration and any of the other legislation that comes up?


I think the flooding is going to be something that legislature is going to deal with very quickly, in the Budget Adjustment Act probably. There's spending that we're going to have to do to address that. Even though we're getting some aid from FEMA, some of that aid comes with a required state match. So there's going to have to be a state match of federal aid and then there's going to have to be probably additional state money spent to assist in flood recovery. So that's in the near term. And then in the longer term for the rest of the session I think there's going to be discussion of what to do to mitigate future flood risks. And opinions differ on that and that debate is just getting started.


So going back to you mentioning dealing with the flood in the Budget Adjustment Act, won't they have to deal with any of those adjustments when they get to the overall budget, you know, down the road? Because if they've made those adjustments, there's still not a lot of money to play with down the road.


That's right. The Adjustment Act once that gets enacted, which will take place relatively early in the session, then that that money is set in stone and it reduces the latitude for the rest of the fiscal year.


Now, it seems like for the last few years, actually, the legislature and the Scott administration have not really meshed very closely during the session. Do you expect the same to happen or do you think there's going to be more cooperation between the legislative branch and the administrative branch this legislative session?


I would say the cooperation is likely to be ad hoc. One of the complaints that legislators have sometimes had about the Phil Scott administration is that they don't really know where they stand on some issues. Now, I think we do know a little bit given that this is the second year in the biennium. So there have been bills put forward in the first year that Scott administration has taken the stand on. So we know some of that. But I don't think there's going to be a wholesale turnaround in efforts to cooperate on the part of the administration. More on a on a case-by-case basis I think.


Bert, you said earlier that you don't anticipate big ticket items to be a big priority during this upcoming session. What does this mean for all of the lobbyists who are trying to push through climate items and things like, you know, full paid family leave that is not the paid family leave that Governor Scott has supported and things like that. Where does this leave the lobbyists and the advocates out there if those are going to get sidelined this session?


Well, I think it means that people are fighting over a smaller and smaller pie, which could lead to greater conflict. The other option I would say for people like that is that it might be time to think creatively about ways to advance policy interests without spending too much money. So, for example, with the issue of housing one option would be to increase funding for new housing. Another option would be to take a regulatory approach and to try to diminish regulations in such a way as that makes it easier to build new housing for private developers. So I would say those second kinds of options, the more regulatory less expensive ones, are going to be the ones that the legislature might find more attractive this session.


And do you expect any new items to come forth? You know, obviously, it's hard to determine what sorts of new sorts of issues will come forth. But do you expect any new bills at this point in time or, as you said, because there's a lack of federal aid do you think they'll just be basically cleaning up the leftovers from the first half of the biennium?


I would say probably even more the latter. I think there's, I can't anticipate any big new substantive legislation. Just carryover and reworking of old proposals that may have gone nowhere in previous years. But of course, you know, politics is unpredictable and current events are unpredictable so who knows what the next six months will bring.



Vermont’s legislative session begins Wednesday.