Leaders of the Democratic majorities in the Vermont House and Senate are calling for collaboration with Republican Gov. Phil Scott, but they see potential grounds for conflict on many issues.
On the opening day of the 2018 legislative session, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) held separate briefings with reporters, during which they outlined the key issues facing lawmakers this year. Two big unknowns: the content of the governor's State of the State address, to be delivered tomorrow; and that of his budget, which will be revealed later this month.
A third big unknown is the impact of new federal policies. State officials are still assessing the effects of the tax reform bill rushed into law last month by the Republican Congress and President Donald Trump. The potential for significant federal budget cuts remains.
Johnson is tired of waiting. "Last year, while we made progress on a lot of issues, there was this feeling of treading water, waiting for the federal government," she said. "And that’s not what Vermonters expect from us."
Johnson and Ashe are calling for concrete action on climate change and meeting the state's renewable energy goals. But both are throwing cold water on the idea of a state carbon tax.
"If we had a federal solution, that would be the simplest. But it’s not gonna happen," said Ashe. "Next best is a regional approach. At the state level, I don’t think members of the Senate are there."
Both leaders are calling for new investments in the state's mental health system and a sustainable revenue source for federally mandated mitigation of phosphorus pollution in Vermont waterways. And while Scott is expected to seek a second straight budget without any tax or fee hikes, Johnson does not feel bound by that standard.
"It may require talk of new revenues for some critical things that we’ve been kicking the can down the road for quite a while, like water quality," she said, pointing to the need for critical "investments"to ensure "a strong healthy future."
Ashe outlined a broader view of Scott's favorite word: affordability. "If you ask any legislator if affordability is a prime interest, they’d all say yes," he said, and then continued: "That touches on everything from health care to utilities to education to general taxes and the cost of goods."
And it also, he said, means making sure "that people of all incomes can live a decent life here."
One of Ashe's top priorities is increasing the minimum wage. This is a point of contention between House and Senate leadership; Johnson's top priority is establishing a paid family leave program. And when asked about raising the minimum wage, she deflects to talk of "the value of a collective benefits package" — considering monetary and non-monetary compensation all together.
Ashe doesn't think much of the idea. "I’ve heard that discussion before," he said. "It starts to make very complicated something that historically has been very simple."
Most of all, though, Ashe and Johnson are waiting to hear what the governor has to say Thursday afternoon.
"I hope to hear a tone of working together," said Johnson. "I’m really leaving his agenda to him, and I’ve got 14 committees and 150 members to worry about myself. But I hope that there will be a lot of places where we’re rowing in the same direction."
In an election year? With big, crucial, expensive issues all over the place? That seems like a forlorn hope.