Senators escort Gov. Peter Shumlin (center) from his ceremonial office to the Senate chamber.
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) gaveled Vermont's legislative biennium to a close early Saturday evening after the House and Senate signed off on a $5.5 billion budget and $5.5 million in new taxes.
"We have done incredible work this year," Smith said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin echoed the point in a speech he delivered to both chambers as they prepared to adjourn, calling the two-year period "one of the most productive and successful in recent memory."
"I'm extraordinarily proud of the work you have done, and I hope you are, too," the governor said.
Like much of this year's legislative session, Saturday's finale was subdued and efficient. Lawmakers put the final touches on bills promoting economic development, banning drugged driving and helping low-income Vermonters move off state assistance. They overwhelmingly approved budget and tax deals worked out late Friday night.
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The House Education Committee debates school district consolidation.
But a last-minute push by the Shumlin administration and House Democrats to find common ground on one of the session's most significant and divisive issues — school district consolidation — was unsuccessful. The failure left Shumlin with nothing to show for his efforts to slow rising property taxes.
In recent weeks, the Senate proved unwilling to pass the House's proposal to mandate consolidation over the course of six years. On Friday, the Senate approved its own, incentive-based plan, which mostly builds upon the existing voluntary framework.
With prodding from the administration, the House Education Committee sought to pass and further amend the Senate plan on Saturday, but House Republicans declined to suspend the rules and let the bill come to a vote. In a meeting of the education committee, Rep. John Mitchell (R-Fairfax) criticized the final proposal as a product of "election-year politics."
"I think Vermonters deserve better than what's been put out here," he said.
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House Speaker Shap Smith and Gov. Peter Shumlin embrace.
In Smith's closing remarks to the House, he acknowledged the angst generated by the consolidation debate.
"We had a difficult discussion about how we make our education system better. And ultimately we did not get where we wanted to go. But you know what? We were willing to try," he said.
"The conversation was worth having," Smith said. "And we're going to need to have that conversation in the future, because we need to do better by our kids."
Leaders of both legislative bodies hailed the work they did this session, highlighting successful efforts to raise the minimum wage, expand access to early childhood education and require the labeling of genetically modified food.
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Gov. Peter Shumlin's staff applauds his speech to the Vermont House.
In his closing remarks to the Senate, President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) saluted the spirit of tripartisanship he said makes Vermont's legislature unique.
"We are the only body [in the country] that has never had a partisan vote. Every vote that we've had has had someone on the other side voting," he said. "I think that tells a story — not just of ... how much respect we have for this body but how much respect we have for each other."
In the House, members took time to say farewell to those who have announced they will not seek reelection this November. Among those stepping down are Reps. Suzi Wizowaty (D-Burlington), George Cross (D-Winooski), Tom Koch (R-Barre), Peter Peltz (D-Woodbury), Anne Mook (D-Bennington), Duncan Kilmartin (R-Newport) and Jeff Wilson (D-Manchester).
In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott issued a plea for lawmakers to "treat each other with respect and civility" in the coming elections. And he gently reminded his colleagues that not everybody would be returning.
"This is the end of the biennium," he said. "You should think about cleaning out your desks."