Gov. Phil Scott was his customary genial self at his weekly press conference Wednesday, but within all the pleasantries there was an unyielding core: "I cannot support the budget and revenue bills" approved by the legislature last Saturday, he said.
He reiterated his call for a special legislative session beginning next Wednesday, and for talks with top lawmakers before then to try to find agreement on tax and spending plans he would find acceptable.
Scott sought to lower the political temperature, which rose last week to levels unusual for Vermont. At the same time, he shifted blame for the current standoff onto the legislature. He said that lawmakers knowingly "passed bills I would veto," and mused that it might be a "political calculation, I don't know."
Well, they might have simply done the best they could based on different values and goals, and come to different conclusions.
Scott asserted that finding common ground shouldn't be difficult. "We are actually very close in what we are trying to achieve," he said. But the distance, he said repeatedly, must be traveled by the legislature. And not only on taxes and spending, but also on his five-year plan to curb school spending.
"It’s close, from my perspective, because some of the issues that we believe that are in the plan, to implement the plan, are issues that they’ve worked on," Scott said. "So if we put it all together and understand that I’m not going to sign anything with a tax or fee in it, then we can make progress."
Which sounds like his five-year plan isn't really negotiable either.
At the same hour as Scott's press conference, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) sent him a letter indicating the legislature is not prepared to bend any further.
Ashe urged Scott to sign the budget and tax bills, which he said "struck all the right notes." He called Scott's plan to keep property tax rates level by using $34 million in one-time money "governing on a credit card." Ashe said Scott's "practice of vetoing the budget is bad governance," pointing out that Vermont has had only two budget vetoes in its history, one of which was signed by Scott last year — and he has threatened to veto this year's budget, as well.
Ashe rejected the idea of negotiating taxes and budgets outside of normal legislative practice and out of the public eye, as happened with the big bills last year. He wrote that Senate leaders are willing to meet with the governor on Monday "to discuss the logistics of the upcoming special session," not to negotiate on taxes, spending or any other issue.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) expressed similar intent in a Wednesday afternoon interview. She said that House leaders have agreed to meet with Scott Thursday afternoon, but only to discuss logistics. "Given the overwhelming support the budget and tax bills received [in the legislature], we want to make sure everyone is involved," she said. "It must be an open process."
Scott wants the special session to focus on one issue — what he calls "the additional $34 million in tax burden on Vermonters ... If we do that and not open up everything else, I believe that we can come to consensus."
"Consensus" meaning, again, that lawmakers come around to his viewpoint.
When a reporter pointed out that the state Constitution created the executive and legislative branches as separate but equal, Scott indicated that he is first among equals. "The governor gets to decide what's best for Vermonters," he asserted.
Sounds like a great starting point for a brief, agreeable special session.
Scott was implicitly critical of a provision in the legislature's budget to spend $33 million in unanticipated revenue to pay down the state's pension obligations, a move that Johnson insists will save $100 million in interest costs. The governor said that if lawmakers want to boost the pension funds, they should wait until his five-year school funding plan starts producing savings. But by his own projections, that won't begin for three more years, and a lot can happen between now and then.
Johnson countered that past underfunding of state pensions has created a fiscal problem that's only going to get worse, unless it's addressed now.
There was one curious exchange in the press conference that shone a light on the administration's disengagement from the legislative process. WCAX-TV's Neal Goswami asked how many votes Scott had in the legislature for his five-year school savings plan.
"I have no idea," Scott replied.
"Your office hasn't reached out to lawmakers?" Goswami asked. Scott repeated that he didn't know.
"Your shop has no idea?" Goswami asked, with a touch of incredulity.
Scott shifted back to blaming lawmakers. "Obviously, they have gotten together to decide they didn’t want to do that at the time," he said.
So his team didn't even bother conducting a straw poll because they presumed defeat. Vote counting is part of the process in dealing with a legislative body. You find out how much support you have, hopefully you find out how you might convince the recalcitrant and it helps you craft a tactical approach to winning approval.
Was it not worth bothering with? Did they start out assuming they were going to lose and proceed straight to the blame game?
Well, yes. Scott came right out and said his staff didn't engage in the usual horse-trading in the legislature's closing days because leadership was convinced there was a need to raise taxes. Quoting imaginary lawmakers, he said, "We have to raise taxes and fees; we have no other way to accomplish this."
It's amazing how well he knows what's in the Democratic majority's minds, considering that he rarely seems to talk with them.
Read Ashe's full letter here:
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.