Gov. Phil Scott addresses reporters in his ceremonial office last week.
With a gubernatorial veto becoming more likely — and with the current budget set to expire in 44 days — Vermont officials face a question they’ve never before had to answer: What if the state doesn’t have a new budget in place by June 30, the last day of the fiscal year?
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, has repeatedly said he’ll only sign a budget that includes a plan to reduce teachers’ health insurance costs. Scott, though, wants to realize the savings by bringing collective bargaining to the state level while most Democrats do not.
After several weeks of negotiations, legislative leaders announced Wednesday that they would go ahead and pass the budget on their terms, with or without the governor’s blessing. A vote could come as soon as Thursday.
If Scott follows through on his veto threat, the Democrat-controlled legislature would break and then return to hold a “special session,” likely in mid-June.
The political circumstances were different in 2009 when the last — and possibly only — budget veto took place. After then-governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, rejected the bill, Democrats, who had a super majority in the Statehouse, simply overrode it. But this time, Dems don’t have the numbers and House Republicans have pledged to sustain the veto.
That means the legislature would have to go back to the drawing board and again try to pass a budget acceptable to Scott.
If they can’t? Vermont Public Radio’s Peter Hirschfeld put that question to Gov. Phil Scott Wednesday.
“Oh, we’ve got a long time between now and July 1,” he responded.
Not that long, though. “Six weeks,” Hirschfeld said.
“I’m confident that common sense will prevail and we’ll have a budget come July 1,” Scott reiterated.
When pressed, the governor admitted, “I haven’t looked into it but I would assume essential services would continue.”
“Would there have to be cuts?” Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck asked.
“I’m not sure,” the governor responded.
When Hirschfeld put that question to legislative leaders, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) told him, “I think that’s a great question for the governor.”
The only person in the Statehouse Wednesday who could offer a definitive answer was Stephen Klein, the legislature’s chief fiscal officer. When asked, he pulled up the Vermont Constitution on a reporter’s phone and read a single line: “No money shall be drawn out of the Treasury, unless first appropriated by act of legislation.”
In other words, when the budget stops, the money stops. To avert a state government shutdown, the legislature could take temporary measures such as passing legislation that would fund state government for days, weeks or months until they agree on a permanent budget.
By the end of the day, Klein had been asked the question so many times he’d taken to carrying photocopies of the pertinent section of the constitution.