It was, unquestionably, the most dramatic moment of a generally drama-challenged legislative session: Late Wednesday night, Vermont’s House Democratic majority almost lost a crucial vote to an unlikely coalition of Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats.
At issue was a plan to have public school teachers’ health care benefits negotiated on a statewide basis. Republican Gov. Phil Scott says the measure would save up to $26 million a year. He has insisted that it be part of a final budget deal.
The governor came whisper-close to a win in the House on Wednesday. The initial tally was 74 for the proposal and 73 against. Then, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) cast her vote — a rarity for a speaker. That created a tie, thus defeating the measure.
The day after the vote, Johnson was sounding pretty confident for a leader who almost suffered an embarrassing defeat.
“We knew it was going to be close,” she said. “I think it’s a symptom of people being really frustrated about property taxes. When I spoke to [lawmakers], it was really about wanting to do anything, even things that were not fleshed out but sounded juicy.”
For House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) there is regret over a lost opportunity but far more delight in his close brush with victory.
“It’s a demonstration to Republicans that we can form a coalition of independents and Democrats to bring this issue to reality,” he said. “We have now demonstrated to Vermonters that that can happen here with a Republican governor.”
Speaking of the governor, Turner met with Scott Thursday morning and delivered a clear message: His caucus had the governor’s back — and it expects him to return the favor.
“I’m calling on him — I’m telling him he’s got to use the veto,” said Turner. “It’s in the governor’s hands to negotiate with the leaders of the majority party and bring this home for taxpayers.” If such a deal doesn’t materialize, Turner says, a veto needs to happen.
The governor is refusing to commit to that — or even invoke the dreaded V-word.
“[Turner] came in and voiced his opinion on what needed to happen,” Scott said. “I believe my approach is the right approach — to give as much flexibility to legislators to do the right thing. There’s still time.”
Still, a showdown — and a budget veto — is very much a live possibility. Especially since the Democrats show no sign of abandoning the line they’ve drawn in the sand: refusing to insert the state into the collective bargaining process.
Of course, that’s not the first line they’ve drawn in the sand. After earlier insisting there was no time to take up the issue this year, House and Senate leaders this week produced a $26 million plan of their own — one that would leave the collective bargaining process intact.
“We got ’em to the point where they admitted there’s money. They even put in an amendment of their own,” Turner noted. “From my perspective, we’ve got them halfway there.”
The situation right now: The Legislature still plans to adjourn on Saturday. The House is done with the issue. The Senate could take it up, but Democratic leadership has no plans to do so.
“Bottom line, this is going nowhere,” said Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham). “It’s dead on arrival over here.”
According to Turner, there are no plans for last-ditch Republican maneuvers. He’s content to leave it up to the governor.
Which leaves the prospect of closed-door talks between Scott and top lawmakers. The governor is sending mixed signals: He’s willing to hear ideas, but they’d better be a very close match to his own preferred plan. Like, say, for instance, identical.
Otherwise, on Saturday night or soon thereafter, you might just hear Phil Scott invoke the great and terrible V-word.
And given Wednesday night’s 74-74 vote in the House, it seems impossible that majority Democrats would be able to override the new governor’s first veto.