Vermont Legislature Begins New Biennium This Week

Jan 5, 2015

Vermont Statehouse
Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

The Vermont Legislature returns to Montpelier this week to begin a new biennium.

Members of the Vermont Legislature begin the session Wednesday. The first few days will be busy, according to Middlebury College professor Emeritus of Political Science Eric Davis.  “The most important things that will happen in the first week - Wednesday, Thursday, Friday this week - is first of all the election of the governor. Which will take place on Thursday morning. The Governor’s inaugural address, most likely Shumlin giving that address, on Thursday afternoon. And probably on Friday the House Speaker and the Committee on Committees in the Senate will announce the membership and chairs of the legislative committees for the upcoming session.”

Vermont Digger Editor Anne Galloway notes that who sits on which committee is more important than many people think.  “The first week really sets the tone. First of all the lawmakers will get their committee assignments which means they’ll figure out the topic area they’ll be focusing on for the entire session. The House Speaker wants to make sure that there’s a good mix of Independents, Progressives, Republicans and Democrats on committees.  You want to put together compatible people who have different ideas and can move policy decisions forward. So that’s very important and that all gets done this week in both the House and the Senate.”

Dominating the first week’s agenda is a Constitutional concern. Since November’s election, the state has not known who will be sworn in as Governor. There were eight candidates in the race and none, including front-runners,  Democratic incumbent Peter Shumlin and Republican Scott Milne, received more than 50 percent of the vote. That imposed a constitutional provision that candidates for governor must receive more than 50 percent or the  legislature chooses the winner in a secret ballot when it convenes its session in January. Again Anne Galloway.  “Shumlin got more votes than Scott Milne. Milne however won most of the legislative districts. And on that basis he says that lawmakers should be voting the way their districts went rather than voting based on the popular vote. This has never really happened quite this way before. Lawmakers will make a decision on Thursday to elect Shumlin or Milne. From there we’ll get an inaugural speech from the governor and typically the governor sets the agenda for the legislature. But things are a little bit squirrely this year because of this weird precedent that’s been set by Milne and also because Shumlin didn’t have robust support from the electorate. So he’s not as powerful as he once was.”

University of Vermont Political Scientist Garrison Nelson expects a difficult session for the governor and that the legislature will drive the agenda.  “Presuming that Peter Shumlin gets re-elected by the legislature, and that’s no guarantee, although two things are working in his favor.  The Democrats outnumber the Republicans in the legislature and it’s been since the 1850's that any governor who’s had to face election in the legislature who had the plurality vote was elected. So presuming that Peter survives this, it’s going to be a tough session anyways. He had to give up his signature program of single-payer. The legislature’s now going to have more influence in this term. They’re the ones who are going to be setting the agenda and he’s going to be obliged to be reactive to  what the legislature wants.”

The legislature must pass a budget and faces a $100 million deficit. A discussion on tax revenues and education reform is also expected. Eric Davis is curious how much lead incumbent Shumlin will take on legislative issues if he is re-elected.   “Is he going to come up with a proposal on school governance and finance? Or is he going to let the legislature take the lead on that issue? So that’s a big question. And the second is the state budget does face some structural deficit problems. The state spending is increasing at about 5-percent a year while the Vermont economy and state revenues are growing at about 3-percent a year. That’s unsustainable over the long term. So will Shumlin have some proposals for changing the state budget that go beyond simply closing the gap in this current year?  In other words, can a politically weakened governor lead on issues like education and public finance?  That’s the big question for me.”

The Vermont Legislature convenes on Wednesday and votes for governor on Thursday.