By Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington & Mendon
A scant couple days passed after the Legislature adjourned before Governor Scott issued his highly anticipated call for a special session to redo the education funding and budget bills. Scott has suggested that with advance leadership meetings the return to Montpelier could wrap up in just a few days.
But House Speaker Johnson says “not so fast.” Redoing the budget and tax bill could take at least a week. And she has indicated there is no reason other bills that the governor may veto couldn’t be part of the conversation. Subsequently, the Speaker’s Office sent communication to all House members indicating we should return May 23 and keep schedules open until June 1, with some possible breaks in-between while committees craft the new bills.
In his letter to legislative leaders, Scott said, “To ensure an efficient use of time and taxpayer resources, I will not introduce, or call for, legislation not related to resolving the one remaining disagreement. It is my hope you will commit to the same. We are very close to an agreement. My Administration has, to date, put forward multiple paths, in writing and in committee testimony, when invited.”
In a stark rebuttal letter to the governor last week, Sen. Ashe began with, “There is no reason for a special session; you should sign the budget and tax bills into law. And, we will not participate in behind-closed-doors negotiating meetings that bypass the legislative process.”
Where does that leave us?
We are now facing a negotiation between the executive and legislative leaders on what will be taken up during the new session, as well as garnering resolution to the tax and budget bills. And to complicate matters, Ashe has indicated he preferred negotiations take place as new bills are formulated in committees next week, not ahead of time with Scott. Last June when the Legislature returned for a veto session, it was limited to dealing with the bills actually vetoed by the governor, and a resolution was reached before the General Assembly returned.
With a special session, everything is potentially back on the table.
For Scott, the issue is simply that the statewide education property taxes are going up, not a lot, but nonetheless increasing (2.6 cents on residents and 5.5 cents on non-residential). He has been clear almost to a fault, that any tax or fee increases this year were a nonstarter. Senate leader Ashe and House Speaker Johnson believe the increase is modest, were the result of locally approved school budgets, and to avert the increase would require the use of more one-time money.
Legislative leaders believe that the unexpected surplus in revenue is better used to pay down some of the unfunded liability the state faces with the teacher retirement fund. And that such a contribution arguably will pay dividends in future years for taxpayers. The governor counters that extra funds should represent an investment in education to keep tax rates steady for this year and potentially over the next few years if cost containment reforms are instituted.
What else might be on the table? Issues passed and likely facing a veto: $15 minimum wage, new payroll tax for paid family leave benefit, and several initiatives where the clock ran out last Saturday and didn’t receive final passage (liquor-lottery merger, simplification of government for small businesses, taxes on e-cigarettes and opioid producers, and an additional school safety bill).
Let’s hope that the heads of both branches of government iron out an agreement that works for Vermont ahead of the special session. Otherwise, it could be one of those “hurry up and wait” situations, that could drag on for several weeks.
The upcoming special session will be convening this Wednesday, May 23. Although I will attend, it is my current intent to not submit for legislative pay for the period we are back in Montpelier (lawmakers receive $723/week for the time we are in session). It is my belief that we budgeted 18 weeks to get our work done and that should be enough. Legislative leaders and the governor could have negotiated the necessary compromises to get the job done. The situation may be different for other lawmakers, and many may need legislative pay to offset lost wages from other employment.
I do not pass judgement, I just feel we should have gotten to the finish line by May 12.
You may reach me at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or my cell. 802-236-3001. Messages may also be left at the State House during the legislative session at 802-828-2228. I am also happy to meet district members coming to the State House.
Contact your legislators.