Senate Panel Nixes Scott's Labor-Commerce Merger Plan | Off Message

Senate Panel Nixes Scott's Labor-Commerce Merger Plan

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Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle and Commerce Secretary Mike Schirling (seated, head of table) - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle and Commerce Secretary Mike Schirling (seated, head of table)
A Vermont Senate committee voted 4-1 on Tuesday against Gov. Phil Scott’s plan to merge the Agency of Commerce and Community Development with the Department of Labor.

For Scott, it served as the second legislative defeat of his proposed changes to state government in a week. But this time, lawmakers were quick to argue that they agree with parts of the governor’s plan — just not all the details.

Last week, another Senate committee and the full House voted to nix Scott’s plan to delay school budget votes while freezing spending plans at this year’s levels. Scott’s proposal served as the cornerstone of his budget address.

On Tuesday, the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee voted down Scott’s executive order to fold Commerce and Labor into a new Agency of Economic Opportunity. Critics said it would be a mistake to put the agency that promotes business in charge of regulating labor laws.

“We think the original proposal won’t work,” said Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), chair of the committee. “Everybody shared the same concern that there should be a firewall … The promoter of business should not be the regulator of business.”

Scott’s executive order, though, spurred lawmakers to discuss consolidating under one department the various workforce training programs that are now housed in several agencies, an issue that had been debated for years.

“We all agree that we must do this,” said Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham), a committee member.

By Tuesday morning, the Scott administration conceded that the merger plan wasn’t going to survive. Commerce Secretary Mike Schirling and Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle offered the Senate committee a revised proposal.

Under the revision, nine workforce development programs would shift from Labor to Commerce, which would be newly named the Agency of Economic Opportunity. The 87 employees who oversee the programs would move to the new agency.

Labor would remain a separate department that still oversees unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and wage issues. Tramway safety would shift from Labor to Public Safety, as it would have under Scott’s executive order.

Kurrle said the revised plan came after the Scott administration heard complaints about the merger. Mullin said his committee would consider the details of the proposal in the coming days and weeks.

Scott’s choice to make the proposal through executive order gives lawmakers less flexibility because the orders can’t be altered, said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden).

“It will appear to be a major clash of opinion, when in fact there’s common ground,” Ashe said of the committee’s vote. “The governor has very much succeeded in solidifying the Senate.”

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.


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