From left; Administration Secretary Susanne Young, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Brian Collamore
In a meeting marked by cordiality and cooperation, Gov. Phil Scott sat down with leaders of all House caucuses plus Senate Republicans Thursday afternoon to settle on procedural aspects for the special legislative session that will begin next Wednesday.
Scott had notified lawmakers that he planned to veto tax and budget bills that the House and Senate adopted at the end of last week, and called for a special session to work out differences between the Republican administration and the Democratic-majority legislature. Scott has insisted on no tax or fee increases; the legislature's tax bill includes a 2.6 cent hike in the homestead property tax rate.
Scott said he will issue a formal declaration by late Friday, calling lawmakers into special session. But he didn't offer any resistance to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), who asserted that the legislature would operate by its normal rules, and the tax and budget questions would be discussed only in open sessions.
The governor had hoped to hold a series of meetings with legislative leaders before the special session begins, to work out agreements on taxes and spending. But Johnson and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) stood firm that there would be no pre-session talks on the issues, just on process and logistics. (Ashe did not attend the meeting; he and his leadership team will sit down with the administration on Monday.)
That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs), leader of the House Progressive caucus. "Last year, the negotiations felt very exclusive," he said. "We want to be as transparent as possible, with committee discussions in open session."
Next Wednesday's session is likely to be a one-day affair, followed by adjournment for the Memorial Day weekend. Many lawmakers, Johnson observed, had already made plans for post-session getaways. The next day of the special session, she indicated, would likely be Wednesday, May 30. Relevant committees may meet earlier than that to begin their work.
That wasn't what Scott's team wanted, but they agreed to Johnson's timetable without complaint.
There was some haggling over whether formal vetoes were desirable. "The tax and budget bills wouldn't have to be vetoed," Scott said. He suggested using them as the basis for final legislation, with negotiated changes inserted into the bills.
Johnson preferred the formal approach. "A veto and a veto message provide clarity," she said.
They would also enter the historic record. Scott would become the only governor in Vermont history to veto tax and budget bills two separate times. And he would have accomplished that in a single biennium.
Attending the meeting were Johnson, Scott, Chesnut-Tangerman, House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), Johnson aide Katherine Levasseur, Administration Secretary Susanne Young, Scott chief of staff Jason Gibbs, House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton), Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) and Rep. Barbara Murphy (I-Fairfax), who represented independent House members.
Also Thursday afternoon, Ashe and Johnson issued a press release reporting that 37 bills had been delivered to the governor's office on Wednesday, which started a countdown of five business days for Scott to sign the bills, veto them, or allow them to become law without his signature. The bills include several that may be in line for a veto: a minimum wage increase, paid family leave, waterways cleanup, a measure that would make polluters pay for medical monitoring of people exposed to toxins, and new regulations for companies that collect and sell personal information online.
The prompt delivery of those bills and Johnson's schedule will provide the legislature an opportunity to take another crack at any of them that are vetoed, since the governor would have to act before next Wednesday.
The meeting concluded with handshakes and friendly words. How will the outcome be used in political messaging? That may be a whole different kettle of fish.