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Governor, Legislative Leaders in Uneasy Truce as Session Approaches
Two years ago, Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders ended the session locked in battle over state spending. Last year’s session ended with Democratic leaders warring among themselves over minimum wage and paid family leave. As lawmakers enter the second year of the biennial session, leaders in both parties and both branches are showing more interest in compromise and less desire for conflict than at any time since Gov. Scott’s election in 2016.
One sign of truce is the quiet that has pervaded Montpelier since June. There have been virtually no press conferences or political jousting between or among the parties. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Sen. President Tim Ashe appear to have buried the hatchet; at a joint press conference on Thursday they made clear they had patched up their very public disagreement from last spring. Surprisingly, they took no shots at Gov. Scott as they matter-of-factly described the several bills that he is certain to veto.
Similarly, Scott has generally avoided calling out his many disagreements with the Democratic legislature in his periodic press conferences. Everyone seems willing to resolve their disputes relatively amicably and move on.
One of the first disagreements to resurface will be S.37, a bill Scott vetoed last spring that would create a new cause of action for individuals who have been exposed to toxic chemicals and claim they may suffer future harm. At yesterday’s press conference, Ashe seemed open to a compromise with the governor. There is a bit of game theory involved, as neither side has an interest in negotiating if they know they can prevail in an override vote in January. Moderate Democrats who opposed the bill in May know the leverage they now hold as both sides seek to firm up their votes.
On both of the highly contested issues of paid family leave (H.107) and minimum wage (S.23), the House appears to have acceded to the Senate. But a gubernatorial veto has been promised, and overrides are unlikely.
Prior acrimony over the minimum wage bill may have faded as a result of Vermont’s strengthening job market, which has given workers more leverage to bargain for higher wages. The state’s unemployment rate of 2.2 percent is the lowest in the country.
The flip side of the low unemployment rate is the scarcity of new workers available to employers. The shortage of workers is a certain contributor to the state’s sluggish job growth, which is far below the national average. Political leaders seem to recognize that Vermont’s employers are more concerned about finding workers than they are about having to pay them more than $10.78 per hour.
Democrats and Republicans would surely find common ground if either party could devise a workable plan to attract or retain more young workers.
Several other previously-divisive issues seem amenable to compromise in 2020:
Budget. The state’s three major funds – the general fund, transportation fund and education fund – are all on track to meet projections. There will still be significant pressures for new spending, but no areas of major disagreement have yet surfaced.
Act 250 Reform. This issue been a thorny source of conflict between the business community and environmentalists for years. But administration staff members are optimistic that they may reach an agreement on reforms that have eluded the legislature for decades.
Gun Violence Prevention. Ashe and Johnson said that they hope to find areas of agreement with the governor
Marijuana. Johnson and Scott are already in general agreement on this issue, so it seems unlikely to become a partisan debate.
Housing. Perhaps no issue in Vermont has greater consensus than the need for more housing. Senate Democrats want to use more state bonding to fund housing development, but fellow Democrat Beth Pearce remains their biggest obstacle.
Economic Development. Legislative and administration leaders have worked cooperatively over the past month on a variety of measures to promote economic development.
The pre-session sense of calm and cooperation will no doubt change as new issues and priorities arise. But as partisan acrimony rips Congress apart, the civility of debate in Vermont looks more and more like a quaint throwback to a bygone era.
Paid Family Leave
A bill to require paid family leave, H.107, was left on the legislative calendar upon adjournment last May, a result of a stalemate between House and Senate leadership.
As with the paid family leave bill, S.23 sits on the legislative action calendar. Legislators anticipate the bill will pass the General Assembly, but anticipate that it will be vetoed.
Global Warming Solutions Act
The issue of climate change is almost certain to receive heightened attention in the upcoming session. In the House, the focus will be the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.462), which is modeled after legislation that was approved in Massachusetts.
In 2015, the legislature approved a requirement that all properties that are three acres or larger obtain a stormwater permit.
Builder Contractor Registry
A bill that creates a new registration for home builders was expected to pass fairly quickly last session, but hit a number of speed bumps.
A recently-passed California law that greatly restricts the ability of employers to classify workers as independent contractors could revive a decades-long debate over how such workers are classified in Vermont.