Both chambers of the Vermont Legislature gaveled into special session this morning — and after less than an hour each chamber adjourned until next Tuesday. After adjournment the House and Senate leaders expressed continued frustration with the Scott Administration.
On May 12th, the Vermont House and Senate adjourned the biennium. Governor Phil Scott then promised to veto the just-passed budget and property tax bills and called a special session to begin May 23rd. He asked the chambers to plan work only until Friday the 25th and focus solely on the budget and tax bill.
But legislative leaders reminded the governor that while he may call them into session, legislators control the agenda. Wednesday, the House reintroduced eight bills for consideration and then adjourned. The Senate followed suit, introducing three bills before Lieutenant Governor Progressive David Zuckerman announced that chamber’s adjournment. “You’ll stay in adjournment until Tuesday May 29th at 10 a.m.”
Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Pro Tem Democrat/Progressive Tim Ashe discussed the status of negotiations with Governor Scott’s administration following the short sessions. Johnson says the House has already closed a school funding gap from $58 to $33 million. “The Legislature has been signaling all along that we’ve been willing to compromise. We’re interested in seeing what the administration comes back with to see where they’re signaling that they could maybe give a little bit.”
The governor pledged he will not approve any measure that raises taxes or fees. But Johnson and Ashe say to date there is no plan from any side that does not raise taxes. “The governor’s plan raises property taxes in 127 communities.”
Ashe: “The governor’s proposal is like a trick of the eye. The tax rate stays level but local taxes will go up in a hundred-twenty plus districts.”
A key point of contention keeping the administration and legislature apart is how to use $58 million in one-time funds. The Legislature wants to pay down the state’s pension obligation, claiming it will save $100 million over time. The governor wants to lower tax rates for one year, which Speaker Johnson and Pro Tem Ashe agree is a fiscally irresponsible move. “It sets us up for another showdown next year.”
Ashe: “You know last year the governor said he had a one-year, no taxes and fees pledge. Then his administration officials came into at least the Senate Appropriations room and said actually now it’s a first term pledge. If we properly funded the system, we’d still have cost containment issues that we need to work on don’t get me wrong, but this idea that something is wrong with the system goes away when you start acting responsibly.”
There is some concern that the stalemate could lead to a shutdown of Vermont government if the budget cannot be finalized by July 1st. Ashe calls that a “horrible outcome”. “We will do everything we can to keep government operating because it will be a huge embarrassment if we find ourselves in that position. However the governor is not the only party in these discussions that is entitled to a non-negotiable position. And so the legislature will keep trying to do the fiscally sound thing and we hope he will move in our direction.”
The legislative leaders estimate that the special session costs taxpayers between $30 to $40-thousand daily.