By XANDER LANDEN
Last March, Gov. Phil Scott sent a letter to lawmakers outlining 15 proposed bills he said he could not support because they contained new taxes and fees that, in the governor’s view, raised the cost of living in Vermont.
The letter set the stage for what would become a combative legislative session ending in a slew of gubernatorial vetoes, a weeks-long impasse over property taxes and a strained relationship between the Democratically-controlled Legislature and the Republican governor.
But as the 2019 session reaches its midpoint, both sides are eager to strike a tone of compromise — even if common ground on some policies seems unlikely — and positioning themselves for an endgame that could result in far less conflict.
The governor, who no longer has the GOP support he needs in the House to reliably sustain his vetoes, has eased his approach to moderating Democratic proposals.
Leaders of the House and Senate said that on major priorities like minimum wage, paid family leave, and establishing a legal market for marijuana, Democrats will make good faith efforts to send Scott legislation he will sign.
“The best way to adopt those policies is with the signature of the governor on a bill after the legislative process, which would reflect compromise,” Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, said Thursday.
“That is the single best way because what that means is that enough give and take has happened that people can accept the outcome and then move on and implement it in good faith,” he added.
Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson D-South Hero, also said she is willing to negotiate the details of major proposals to get the governor on board.
“I’d like to see paid family leave and minimum wage go into law,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t do anybody any good for either side to just park themselves in an idealistic place so that it doesn’t pass or it gets vetoed and Vermonters never see the benefit of it.”
The governor and his staff have acknowledged that the political reality in Montpelier has reinforced Scott’s need to have a stronger working relationship with the Legislature.
With a bolstered majority, Democrats and Progressives in the House now have enough members to rally the two-thirds of the chamber needed to override Scott’s veto pen.
But support for a $15 minimum wage and a regulated marijuana market has been far from unanimous in the Democratic caucus. If Scott vetoes legislation, Johnson will face the tricky task of uniting moderates in her own party and members of the Progressive Party.
What the administration officials have lost in leverage they are trying to make up in cooperation, making an extra effort this year to weigh in on policy in committees.
The governor pitched his own moderate version of a paid family leave proposal, after opposing the policy outright last year. Unlike the Democratic legislation, his plan is voluntary, and not funded through a payroll tax.
And in a reversal from his first term approach, Scott announced last week that he will not pressure legislators to contain property tax rates, even though taxes will likely see a modest increase stemming from a boost in school spending.
“We had our battles in the first two years,” Scott said in an interview on Vermont PBS last week, adding that last year he was fighting over a 9 cent property tax increase, compared to about a cent this year.
“I have some other areas that I want to work together on,” he added, “and we can spend our time fighting about that or we can make some improvements in workforce development and trying to attract more people to Vermont.”
The administration has also said that unlike in prior years, the governor will not be pushing the Legislature to pass education finance reform proposals. In 2017 and 2018, the Legislature’s clash with the governor over his hard line on property taxes and major education reform proposals led to prolonged budget standoffs.
Jason Gibbs, Scott’s chief of staff, said Thursday that the governor isn’t interested in provoking the same fight with the Legislature over education spending this year.
“They know how he feels about all these things. There’s no point in arguing about whether or not it should be a priority,” Gibbs said. “They know he’s a willing partner, it’s up to them to decide whether or not they want to work with us to address that issue.”
Gibbs said the governor shared four out of the five of the House Democrats’ stated priorities this year — finding a sustainable clean water funding source, instituting a paid family leave program, expanding broadband access, and boosting funding for child care subsidies. Raising the minimum wage is not on the list of shared priorities.
“There’s an enormous amount of common ground that could represent the basis of a real consensus,” he said.
It’s the details, particularly around the funding for these proposals, where Democratic legislators and the governor disagree.
Both the Legislature and the governor, for example, want to significantly increase funding for child care assistance. Scott’s budget boosted subsidies by harnessing $7 million in new online sales revenue from the education fund.
Democrats say they don’t want to use the ed fund to pay for programs that aren’t specifically linked to pre-K to 12 education, but have yet to come up with an alternate proposal to fund the roughly $8.5 million they hope to see in additional child care spending next year.
“It’s where the money comes from that’s the issue,” Johnson said. “So that’s the place where we’re going to have disagreement not just with the administration but even within the Legislature as we try to wind our way through and find a source that is fair for Vermonters.”
But both sides say they aren’t expecting an end-of-session standoff this year. Ashe said he expects the disagreement over the budget will be narrower in scope this time around, centering on small pieces and programs.
He pointed out a $250,000 cut proposed by the Scott administration to the Support and Services at Home, a home care program for elderly residents, which he strongly disagrees with.
“There is nothing in the budget that rises to such a level that it’s a shutdown government kind of set up of conflict,” Ashe said.
House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, said the House has yet to see major policy debates that would put the stated desire for compromise to the test. But for now, she’s taking Democratic leadership at their word.
“I’m always an optimist and I will trust that what they say is true until it’s not,” she said. “If that’s what they’re saying then I’m going to believe them until I can’t believe them.”
In the largest debate of the session so far, over a bill that would enshrine a woman’s right to abortion into state law, Democrats were able to pass the legislation without compromising with Republicans, who sought to restrict the scope of the proposal.
But McCoy said that the abortion bill isn’t a good indicator of how the relationship between Democrats and Republicans will look going forward, because of the personal nature of the issue.
The minimum wage and paid family leave proposals in particular — where the governor and Republicans are concerned about how the policies might burden small business — will likely serve as the first major tests of the new dynamics in Montpelier.
Don Turner, a former House minority leader, who successfully rallied Republicans last year to sustain Scott’s veto of a toxic pollution liability bill, said he hoped the governor would continue to stand his ground this year.
Turner said he particularly wants to see the governor continue to hold the line on new taxes and fees and was disappointed to hear Scott softening his stance.
“I hope he doesn’t continue to give them everything they want,” Turner said, referring to Democrats. “Don’t give them the state. There are still a lot of people in Vermont who oppose those things they want him to pass.”
McCoy said she wasn’t surprised to see the governor shifting on to property taxes this year. With the rising cost of teacher salaries and benefits, she doesn’t know how he could have held the line once again.
“There’s no way that he could once again for a third year in a row have a flat education rate,” she said. “I was amazed that we could actually do it for two years in a row.”
During a press conference on Thursday, Scott stopped short of saying that the session would end without friction with Democrats.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s going to be smooth sailing,” he told reporters. “But I would say the devil’s always in the details. We do agree with the goals, but again, there’s always opportunity for disagreement.”