After a long Friday of meetings, floor debates and two consecutive fire alarms, the Vermont House advanced a budget bill that would exclude areas of disagreement with Gov. Phil Scott, who had vetoed the legislature's original budget over concerns about property taxes and school spending.
The vote was 86-44, and broke essentially along party lines. The bill must gain approval on a second vote, to be taken on Tuesday. It would then move to the Senate, most likely next Thursday.
And at the end of all this is a near-certain gubernatorial veto.
Scott has insisted on two key points: Using onetime money to prevent increases in either homestead or nonresidential property tax rates, and enacting a five-year plan to curtail school spending. The House bill would keep homestead rates at current levels, but allow an increase in nonresidential rates mandated by existing law.
In a memo to legislative leaders sent on Thursday, Administration Secretary Susanne Young expressed the governor's opposition to the bill because it would only keep homestead tax rates level. She wrote that under the bill as it stood, "meaningful and good faith conversations on preventing an increase for the non-residential payers cannot occur."
Picking up on the theme, Republicans slammed the bill as a diversion from the ultimate task of reaching agreement. "What a waste of time," said Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) during floor debate. "Who are we kidding?"
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) argued that there was no reason for a veto.
"There is nothing in this bill that breaks any promises the governor made," Johnson said after Friday's session. "There is nothing in this bill that raises taxes. There is nothing in this bill that he has opposed."
Rather than veto threats, she added, "At some point we need a signal that the governor actually does want to work with us, and not just expect us to pass every last detail of what he's requesting."
Johnson also promised that, despite Republican skepticism, if the bill becomes law, Democratic leadership is committed to resolving all remaining issues.
"We're doing the job!" she said. "In fact, we passed an amendment today saying 'We're going to do our jobs.' I don't know how much clearer we can be."
The House's morning session was interrupted around 11:00 a.m. by a fire alarm and mandatory evacuation. The Montpelier Fire Department arrived, searched the building, and gave the "all clear." But even before the emergency vehicles had departed the grounds, a second fire alarm forced everyone to troop back into the midday heat. The second "all clear" came shortly before noon.
There was no sign of a fire on either occasion; the sergeant at arms' office had no explanation for the false alarms.