By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger
The Legislature coughed, spit and sputtered its way into overtime Friday, May 12.
Lawmakers were unable to reach a deal with Gov. Phil Scott and will return to Montpelier this week to try and complete their work for this year’s legislative session.
When lawmakers arrived at the State House Friday morning, some had high hopes adjournment could come late that night, or perhaps at the end of a long Saturday.
However, as the head of the Senate and the speaker of the House huddled with the governor, rank and file lawmakers were left with little to do. As the day dragged on, lawmakers loitered in hallways and outside on the State House steps, waiting for action on the few key remaining bills of the year.
Shortly before 5 p.m., leadership sent lawmakers home for the weekend. It was unclear what day lawmakers would return this week. Speaker Mitzi Johnson said House members should plan to return on Tuesday or Wednesday. Ashe suggested Wednesday or Thursday.
Senate and House leadership initially planned to adjourn last week, which would have been a week earlier than planned. Every year, the state plans for an 18-week-long legislative session. The lack of a deal Friday will push the session into overtime. Each additional week in Montpelier costs about $250,000.
Those ambitions to finish early or on time were derailed amid a division between legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Scott over a proposal from the administration to change how teachers’ health care is negotiated.
Legislative leaders and the governor met throughout the week, traded proposals but reached a stalemate. At that point, senators on Friday approved a plan proposed by President pro tem Tim Ashe that the governor had already rejected.
Ashe proposed a $13 million reduction in state funding for schools—roughly the amount of money schools are projected to save in teacher health insurance costs under new plans offered by the Vermont Education Health Initiative.
Scott has said he will not allow the budget to pass if the state finance package does not include a mechanism to take advantage of what he says is $26 million in potential savings. He has threatened to veto the state budget if lawmakers “walk away” from the savings.
In an interview, Ashe said his plan achieves the savings Scott wanted. The governor, he said, continues to move the goalposts and appears to be less interested in the savings than he is in undermining the collective bargaining process.
As a result of the stalemate, work has stalled on other bills, including an economic development package, an affordable housing bond bill, and, crucially, the state budget.
Time was also running down for finishing the state’s budget, for which there is an agreement that a vote come at least 24 hours after the bill is completed in order to give lawmakers a chance to read it.
House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, bashed the legislation that passed the Senate earlier in the day as a “horrible proposal,” and reaffirmed the caucus’s commitment to Scott’s proposal.
“This savings, this negotiation is so important to Vermonters and property taxpayers, we’re willing to come back next week if that’s what it takes,” he said.
The final days of the legislative session are typically filled with frenzied meetings reconciling the differences between the Senate and House versions of the state budget. Then, those leaders try to hammer out a deal with the governor.
The budget conference committee, however, has not met in days, stalled by theimpasse on the teachers’ health care.
Ashe told senators that the threat of a veto on the budget is unusual when the crux of the disagreement with the governor relates to a measure that will be attached to a separate bill concerning education finance, H.509.
“This year, things have taken a turn that’s a little bit different than anything else I’ve experienced in my last nine years here in the Senate, in that issues that are external to the budget have become critical to the budget,” Ashe said.
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of the Senate appropriations committee, said the conference panel has not met because there is no point coming to the table until the other bills, including the education finance legislation, are resolved.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said she believed work on other bills, including the budget, could continue concurrently with the negotiations on health care. She accused the Senate of “dragging its feet” on closing out the budget and other bills.
“We could close the budget right now,” Johnson said, insisting that the two were wholly separate.