Lawmakers headed back to Montpelier Wednesday as the Vermont Legislature met for a special veto session. After a long day of twists and turns, the House and Senate eventually approved the 2018 state budget, which includes an adjusted teacher health care deal that the governor wanted included in the fiscal plan.
First-term Republican Governor Phil Scott had vetoed the Vermont budget because it did not include his proposal to change how teacher health care contracts are negotiated. The governor said up to $13 million could be saved if health care was negotiated statewide rather than by individual school districts or boards.
Before Wednesday’s special session started, the governor, House speaker and Senate pro tem announced they had reached a compromise that would allow a budget veto override and prevent a government shutdown on July 1st. Governor Scott said each party compromised in order to reach the agreement. “With this agreement we’ve achieved something monumental. For the first time in recent memory we have constructed and expect to pass a state budget that does not raise taxes and fees. We will have a budget and a property tax bill that provides much needed relief from rising property tax rates for all Vermonters and makes critical investments in areas like early care and learning, higher education, affordable housing and economic development.”
The compromise still attains the savings the governor is seeking but spreads it over two years: school contracts must save $8.5 million in fiscal year 2018 and $4.5 million in 2019.
But it was not an easy sell in the House. An initial vote to approve the compromise fell short. Legislators then spent the afternoon in session and caucusing over amendments.
Throughout the day the Vermont House debated amendments to the compromise announced that morning. Independent Paul Poirier said that was a problem. “I came in this morning and this is the first I’d heard about this compromise. Now it kind of reminded me about what’s happening in Washington. Nobody knows what’s being negotiated. Well, that’s how I felt when I came in this morning”
Republican Kurt Wright: “I know there’s a sentiment here, I heard it in our committee and I know that’s probably going to be a sentiment on the floor, that boy, we can’t mess with this deal that’s been negotiated, we just can’t mess with this. But you know I don’t think that we came here to just be a rubber stamp and I think that it is appropriate for us to weigh in on behalf of our taxpayers.”
The House did eventually agree on a compromise and passed the budget bill. “Please listen to the third reading of the bill. An Act relating to making appropriations for the support of government. Now the question is shall the bill pass. Are you ready for that question? If so all those in favor please signify by saying aye. Aye. Those opposed nay. No. The ayes appear to have it. The ayes do have it and you have passed H.542.”
While the House spent hours on budget negotiations, it took minutes to approve it in the 30-member Senate. “All those in favor please signify by saying aye. Aye. Those opposed signify by saying nay. The ayes have it and you have passed H.542.”
Senate Pro Tem Democrat Tim Ashe: “We really worked hard to educate people so that we could take action today if at all possible. But we always said that if people needed more time we’d be happy to accommodate that. But at a certain point people were ready to cast their votes.”
Among the House rank and file, Republican Representative Jim Harrison, who was appointed to his seat this year, believes every legislator had concerns about the teacher health care compromise. “Proposals such as today affect our towns and schools differently. So I think we all wanted to get some more information. I myself had some concerns at the beginning of the day whether or not I would even support it. But as questions and explanations came you come to the understanding that this was the best we could do.”
Progressive/Democrat Selene Colburn says she doesn’t like the state encroachment on workers’ rights and feels House members were under pressure with a shutdown deadline looming. “It’s clear that the governor really boxed the legislature in and kept doing so right up until the very end. So that’s the situation that we were put in, unfortunately.”
The Vermont legislature has now adjourned until October 23rd, if necessary, to deal with federal budget issues, or January 3rd.