House Speaker Mitzi Johnson on Wednesday as Gov. Phil Scott looks on and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (center) consults with colleagues
How last-minute was the deal over the Vermont state budget and teacher health care benefits?
Try this: When Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders held a press conference Wednesday morning to announce the agreement, they could not provide a written summary. Final details of the teacher health care bill were still being worked out. Nothing was on paper.
This is a deal that emerged from closed-door bargaining over the last several weeks, involving a handful of lawmakers and Scott administration officials — none of whom was willing to disclose any particulars along the way.
There has been no public testimony, no hearings, no chance for interested parties to have their say. Lawmakers are given little opportunity to read or ponder the bill.
"This process was a D.C.-style government shutdown threat that prompted a backroom deal that didn't involve any of those most directly affected," said Darren Allen, communications director for the Vermont-National Education Association, the teachers' union. "We first got the language [of the legislation] today through a tweet from [Londonderry independent] Rep. Oliver Olsen."
Transparency, anyone? Accountability?
The process began in late April, when Scott formally unveiled his plan for statewide negotiations for teacher health care benefits. He sold it as a way to maximize taxpayer savings from pending federal changes in health care law. The Democratic legislature balked at the idea of statewide negotiations.
The impasse dragged on, extending the legislative session by more than two weeks. Ultimately, lawmakers passed a budget and a teacher health care bill that the governor vetoed. Over the past several days, there were closed-door talks between legislature and administration, which led us to Wednesday morning's announcement.
At the press conference, the governor sought to deflect the closed-door question.
"This was a negotiation — none of what we discussed hasn't been discussed in some form before," he said. "And I believe that what we spoke about during the last days of the [legislative] session is not unlike what finally passed. Everyone had a piece of something in this compromise. So I don't think this is different than what we had contemplated earlier."
OK, two things about that.
First, there's a difference between a bunch of concepts and an actual piece of legislation that's about to become law. If the weatherman talked about sunny skies, cloudy skies, rain and storms, could he claim to have given you a forecast?
Second, if "what we spoke about during the last days of the session is not unlike what finally passed," then what was the point of all the mystery, all the closed-door meetings, all the waiting and wondering?
Oh, and third: Did the governor just admit he didn't get anything in this deal? That he could have gotten the same deal weeks ago?
Yeah, I kinda think he did.
For his part, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) argued that closed-door dealmaking is a normal part of the process.
"Bear in mind, at the end of every legislative process, there are decisions being made through conference committees, one-to-one conversations, every year it happens," he said. "It's one of the warts on the legislative process, and there are decisions that have to be made and you can't go back and solicit every person every time something shifts in the conversation."
Well, sure, but in a typical session the warts are fairly small. The closed-door stuff is limited to a few days, not several weeks. This process is a wart the size of the Statehouse dome.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) — with Scott standing directly behind her — unsubtly put the blame on the governor.
"We've said all along that the right way to do this is to introduce the concept in January and have it move through the legislative process," she said. "Is it the ideal process? No, it isn't. The ideal process is to make sure we have ideas on the table early enough for proposals like this to walk through committees in each body."
She's absolutely right. Usually, a closed-door deal-sealing follows a public process that stretched over months. There was no such process with Scott's proposal.
And in the end, he didn't get much of what he wanted. He didn't get statewide teacher health care negotiations. He didn't get the guaranteed $26 million in savings he so adamantly demanded. He didn't get a mechanism to ensure that savings are realized and given back to taxpayers.
That press conference may have been the first time in almost two months that the governor made a public appearance without saying the magic words "$26 million," the figure he claimed that his plan would save.
"Obviously we didn't save the full $26 million, and that's unfortunate," he acknowledged after the press conference. "But the $26 million is there to be saved if we do it right."
The governor put forward his proposal in April. He insisted on its passage, to the point of forcing an extended session and a special veto session. His officials and top lawmakers spent hours upon hours haggling over details, while the rest of us waited for the white smoke to come out of the chimney.
And the budget bill? The one Scott vetoed after it passed the Senate unanimously and the House with a single dissenting vote? It's virtually unchanged.
In retrospect, it hardly seems worth all the trouble. And in the process, the concept of government transparency took a thorough and unmerited beating.
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.