Message from Montpelier: May 25

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I was warned. “The end of the session can be messy.”

And it was. Desperately trying to put the Golden Dome behind us, we stayed late, with several evenings stretching close to midnight. Were we poring over legal documents and earnestly listening to intelligent debate? No. We were not “on the floor” considering bills. Instead, we waited, checked email, started rumors, speculated and wandered about the capitol from group to group. We gaveled in for 20 minutes to vote and send a minor bill off to the Senate. Then: “They’re still negotiating; recess for one hour.” One hour stretched to two, then three.

Two bills needed to pass before we could adjourn: the budget (H.518) which dictates how the state’s funds are spent and the yield bill (H.509) that sets the tax rates feeding Vermont’s education system. Near the end of March, the House passed both and sent them to the Senate. The budget passed with only one dissenting vote and the yield bill with only 25. That budget showed remarkable agreement on what was important for the state: no new taxes or fees, a 1.5 percent spending increase well within the state’s ability to pay and a continuation of the services and protections we all enjoy. On top of that, an increased commitment to clean water and affordable housing. The House had heard what Vermonters wanted and made the tough decisions a nearly unanimous budget vote requires. We congratulated ourselves on being very different from the pointless, destructive politics of Washington.

Six weeks later all that has changed. The governor dropped a new issue into the middle of an orderly end of session: moving teacher health care negotiations away from local school boards to the state level. He then threatened to veto the budget if it didn’t happen. The Senate refused to go along. The House split right down the middle. The two must-pass bills waited as the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate pro tem negotiated.

After weeks of wrangling, enough was enough. The House and Senate found agreement and passed a yield bill. Passage of the budget quickly followed. It was nearly the same budget as before, but this time the House vote fell very close to party lines. The unanimity and goodwill were gone, replaced by frustration and helplessness.

If the governor makes good on his pledge to veto both bills, the state will not be able to write checks after July 1, unless something is done, and it’s not clear what the effect will be on property taxes. The legislature is scheduled to meet again near the end of June in hopes of avoiding a senseless shutdown. This sounds too much like Washington.