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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Scott, Legislature Remain at Odds

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 8:18 PM

Reps. Kitty Toll, Janet Ancel and David Sharpe convene a multi-committee hearing Wednesday. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Reps. Kitty Toll, Janet Ancel and David Sharpe convene a multi-committee hearing Wednesday.
The Vermont legislature began a special session Wednesday as ordered by Gov. Phil Scott. After brief floor sessions, key House and Senate committees heard presentations from administration officials and their own fiscal analysts — and it became clear that nothing has really changed.

If anything, the two sides were a bit further apart than they were a week and a half ago, when the legislature adjourned after approving tax and budget bills that the governor promised to veto. Presentations by administration officials Wednesday were met with a barrage of skeptical questions, and their answers did not satisfy majority Democrats.

The administration is still presenting virtually the same plan it put forward in early May. "I didn't see any changes from what they presented before," said Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, after the House hearing.

Scott's plan still calls for the use of onetime money to keep property tax rates level for the fiscal year starting July 1, although the amount of those funds has shrunk from $58 million to $44 million. Scott says the money would be paid back over five years with some of the savings realized through his proposal to rein in school costs. The administration estimates the savings at $300 million.

Administration projections of those savings are profoundly different than those of legislative analysts — which leaves lawmakers in a state of uncertainty.

"I'm very concerned with these aggressive savings without seeing any analysis behind it," said Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville), chair of the House Appropriations Committee. "In early May, I asked the administration for the analysis for some of the proposals, and I didn't receive anything."

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Scott Vetoes Minimum Wage, Paid Family Leave Bills

Posted By on Tue, May 22, 2018 at 6:04 PM

Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: ALICIA FREESE
  • File: Alicia Freese
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Updated at 8:18 p.m.

Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday vetoed legislation that would have raised Vermont’s minimum wage to $15 and established a paid family leave program.

The high-profile vetoes came as the governor grappled with a midnight deadline to determine the fate of more than three dozen bills. In total, according to a spokesperson, Scott signed 38 bills into law on Monday and Tuesday; he allowed two to become law without his signature, and he vetoed four.

Scott previously vetoed legislation regulating toxic chemicals, and he is expected to do the same to the state budget and tax bills.

The legislature likely won’t be able to override the governor’s vetoes because Democrats in the House lack the two-thirds majority required to do so.

Scott’s decision to veto the minimum wage and paid leave bills came as no surprise. He expressed his opposition to both measures throughout the legislative session. But the move is nevertheless a blow to two signature progressive causes. The vetoes drew immediate rebukes from Democratic lawmakers and advocates.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Scott, Lawmakers Clear Path to Special Session

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2018 at 6:37 PM

From left; Administration Secretary Susanne Young, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Brian Collamore - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • From left; Administration Secretary Susanne Young, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Brian Collamore
In a meeting marked by cordiality and cooperation, Gov. Phil Scott sat down with leaders of all House caucuses plus Senate Republicans Thursday afternoon to settle on procedural aspects for the special legislative session that will begin next Wednesday.

Scott had notified lawmakers that he planned to veto tax and budget bills that the House and Senate adopted at the end of last week, and called for a special session to work out differences between the Republican administration and the Democratic-majority legislature. Scott has insisted on no tax or fee increases; the legislature's tax bill includes a 2.6 cent hike in the homestead property tax rate.

Scott said he will issue a formal declaration by late Friday, calling lawmakers into special session. But he didn't offer any resistance to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), who asserted that the legislature would operate by its normal rules, and the tax and budget questions would be discussed only in open sessions.

The governor had hoped to hold a series of meetings with legislative leaders before the special session begins, to work out agreements on taxes and spending. But Johnson and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) stood firm that there would be no pre-session talks on the issues, just on process and logistics. (Ashe did not attend the meeting; he and his leadership team will sit down with the administration on Monday.)

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs), leader of the House Progressive caucus. "Last year, the negotiations felt very exclusive," he said. "We want to be as transparent as possible, with committee discussions in open session."

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Opinion
Walters: Advocacy Groups Try to Pressure Scott

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2018 at 1:21 PM

Michelle Fay of Voices for Vermont's Children - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Michelle Fay of Voices for Vermont's Children
A united front of progressive and environmental advocacy groups gathered outside the Statehouse Thursday morning to deliver a message to Gov. Phil Scott.

"The governor has a choice," said Lauren Hierl of Vermont Conservation Voters. "Does he side with corporations or with regular Vermonters?" The gathered advocates brandished signs that stated the dichotomy.

The groups highlighted a series of bills that will soon land on Scott's desk for signature or veto. Some, such as paid family leave and raising the minimum wage, appear certain to be vetoed. Others are less clear. Scott himself has refused to officially commit on any bill before he has a chance to read it — with the notable exceptions of the tax and budget bills, which he has already said he will veto.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Scott Speaks Softly, Carries Big Stick on Taxes

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2018 at 7:55 PM

Gov. Phil Scott - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott was his customary genial self at his weekly press conference Wednesday, but within all the pleasantries there was an unyielding core: "I cannot support the budget and revenue bills" approved by the legislature last Saturday, he said.

He reiterated his call for a special legislative session beginning next Wednesday, and for talks with top lawmakers before then to try to find agreement on tax and spending plans he would find acceptable.

Scott sought to lower the political temperature, which rose last week to levels unusual for Vermont. At the same time, he shifted blame for the current standoff onto the legislature. He said that lawmakers knowingly "passed bills I would veto," and mused that it might be a "political calculation, I don't know."

Well, they might have simply done the best they could based on different values and goals, and come to different conclusions.

Scott asserted that finding common ground shouldn't be difficult. "We are actually very close in what we are trying to achieve," he said. But the distance, he said repeatedly, must be traveled by the legislature. And not only on taxes and spending, but also on his five-year plan to curb school spending.

"It’s close, from my perspective, because some of the issues that we believe that are in the plan, to implement the plan, are issues that they’ve worked on," Scott said. "So if we put it all together and understand that I’m not going to sign anything with a tax or fee in it, then we can make progress."

Which sounds like his five-year plan isn't really negotiable either.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Scott Summons Lawmakers to Special Session Next Wednesday

Posted By on Tue, May 15, 2018 at 8:32 PM

Gov. Phil Scott - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Gov. Phil Scott
The showdown is set.

Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday that he will call lawmakers back for a special session beginning next Wednesday, May 23. In a publicly released letter to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), the Republican governor wrote that he hopes to reach an agreement to avert a property tax increase by May 25.

The Democrat-led legislature passed budget and tax bills and adjourned on Saturday, anticipating that Scott, who has demanded lawmakers hold down property taxes this year, would veto both pieces of legislation. Rather than schedule a veto session, the legislature left it up to Scott to call them back for a special session. That means the governor gets to pick the date, but lawmakers won't be limited to voting on bills he vetoed.

Not wasting any time, Scott chose to call lawmakers back to Montpelier before the budget and tax bills have even reached his desk.

The tax bill, which won support from some Republican legislators, would result in an average 2.6 cent increase for residents and a 5.5 cent increase for businesses and second-home owners.

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Team Scott Achieves a Talking Point

Posted By on Sun, May 13, 2018 at 2:02 PM

After his adjournment speech to the House, Gov. Phil Scott pauses for a handshake with House Minority Leader Don Turner. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • After his adjournment speech to the House, Gov. Phil Scott pauses for a handshake with House Minority Leader Don Turner.
The hours (and hours) before the Vermont legislature wrapped up its 2018 session were mostly an exercise in procedural tedium. There was little, if any, drama to be had.

The only question was whether the House Republican caucus would agree to suspend the rules to allow immediate votes on a series of bills. If its members didn't, lawmakers would have been forced to come back the following week for at least one additional day. Eventually, after a late-afternoon meeting, the GOP agreed.

But amidst the tripartisan unity over getting the heck out of the Statehouse, Republicans did throw up one procedural maneuver that appeared designed to produce a nice little talking point for Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

During consideration of H.928, a bill that sets limits on salary hikes for gubernatorial appointees, House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) offered an amendment that would have removed the pressure to reach agreement on the big tax and budget bills — in the event that Scott vetoed them. He proposed allowing the state to continue operating indefinitely after the start of the new fiscal year, on July 1, with spending set at this year's levels. Otherwise, state law would force a government shutdown in the absence of a budget.

After Turner introduced his amendment, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) declared a brief recess so the House Government Operations and Appropriations committees could consider it. They did so, openly, on the House floor. VTDigger.org reporter Colin Meyn tried to listen in, but he was ushered away by House Clerk Bill MaGill. Which seemed a clear violation of open meetings laws, since the two committees were conducting official business.

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Vermont Legislature Adjourns As Veto Threats Loom

Posted By on Sun, May 13, 2018 at 12:44 AM

Gov. Phil Scott addresses the Senate Saturday at the close of the 2018 session. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Gov. Phil Scott addresses the Senate Saturday at the close of the 2018 session.
Updated May 13 at 12:04 p.m.

With muted enthusiasm, the Vermont House and Senate passed the state budget and tax bills late Saturday, and adjourned just after midnight.

In a repeat of last year’s legislative finale, Gov. Phil Scott indicated he’d veto both the budget, which received significant Republican support, and the tax bill. His main objection this time: Lawmakers declined to back his proposal to use $58 million in one-time money to buy down property tax rates.

In speeches to the House and Senate at the close of the session, the governor didn’t utter the word “veto,” but he did restate his hardline stance against any tax or fee increase, saying, “I acknowledge a fundamental disagreement remains, as I simply can’t support adding to the tax burden of Vermonters.”

Scott is expected to call lawmakers back to the Statehouse in the coming weeks to hash out a deal in a special session. He has significant leverage because the 53 Republicans in the House can sustain his vetoes. If the two branches of government fail to reach a compromise by June 30, state government would shut down.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Vermont Senate Votes Down Scott's Labor Board Appointee

Posted By on Sat, May 12, 2018 at 6:37 PM

Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden)
Updated at 7:49 p.m.

In a highly unusual move, the Vermont Senate voted Saturday against confirmation of a gubernatorial appointee.

With a voice vote, senators rejected Gov. Phil Scott's appointment of retired lawyer Karen O’Neill to the Vermont Labor Relations Board. Rejections are so rare that lawmakers said they weren't sure how much weight they have. It's possible the governor could install O'Neill on the board without the Senate's consent. Calling the decision “incredibly disappointing,” Scott communications director Rebecca Kelley said, “we’re considering all of our options.”

Scott chose O’Neill, who worked as an attorney at Vermont Electric Power Company, the Burlington law firm Gravel & Shea and Green Mountain Power, to fill one of two neutral seats on the board. The remaining four seats are divided between those with management experience and labor backgrounds.

The vote came during a rare Saturday session, as lawmakers sought to wrap up business and adjourn for the year.

Making the case against O’Neill, Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) described her as “eminently qualified” to serve in one of the management positions. But he argued that she didn’t qualify for a neutral one, given her extensive background working in management. Sirotkin pointed to state law, which stipulates that neutral board members can’t be connected with any labor organization or management position.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Tax Bill Agreement Clears Path to Adjournment

Posted By on Fri, May 11, 2018 at 9:15 PM

Legislative Counsel Peter Griffin explaining H.911 to members of the conference committee. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Legislative Counsel Peter Griffin explaining H.911 to members of the conference committee.
A conference committee of the Vermont House and Senate has unanimously approved H.911, a tax bill that makes significant changes in how public schools are funded in the state. The late Friday vote clears the way for the legislature to adjourn as soon as Saturday.

Most important politically, the bill increases the residential property tax rate by 2.6 cents — far below earlier projections, which were in the seven-cent range, but still exceeding Gov. Phil Scott's demand that there be no hike in the property tax rate.

All six conferees, including two Republicans, Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) and Rep. Scott Beck (R-St. Johnsbury), signed the committee report early Friday evening. There had been major differences between the House and Senate on H.911, but the conference committee achieved common ground after a long day of meetings.

"There's some good stuff in the bill," Beck said. "It's an improvement over where we were before. It needs to be further improved."

Neither House nor Senate seriously considered Scott's plan to spent $58 million in one-time money to keep rates level. Scott has threatened to veto any rate increase, but his resolve will be tested by the committee's work in reducing the hike. As Brock noted, the increase is roughly equivalent to growth in school budgets around the state, virtually all of which were approved by voters on Town Meeting Day.

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