Sen. Jane Kitchel, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe and Sen. Ann Cummings
In back-to-back press conferences Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott and leaders of the Vermont Senate made clear that a compromise budget agreement remains elusive. The two sides have little more than two weeks to strike a deal and avert a possible government shutdown on July 1.
No one knows for sure what a shutdown would mean because there's no precedent in Vermont history. "The [Vermont] constitution is clear," Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) said at a Statehouse press conference. "We cannot spend money we haven't appropriated."
The governor, speaking at a press conference at Elmore State Park, refused to discuss whether his administration has prepared contingency plans, even as state employees and recipients of state funds grow increasingly anxious. "I'm confident we'll come to an agreement," Scott said. When another reporter raised the contingency question, he said again, "I'm confident we'll come to an agreement."
During last year's budget standoff, Scott promised that there would be no shutdown, even if he had to give ground to avoid it. This year, he is making no such promise. Still, he insisted, "We're not going to get to that point."
The Republican governor's confidence is apparently based on his belief that the legislature will ultimately cave in on taxes. Senate leaders argued that they've been doing all the compromising so far.
"If we started on the goal lines of a football field, we've moved beyond midfield and the governor is still on his goal line," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). "We've more than moved in his direction; it's time for him to move in our direction."
Scott has until midnight Thursday to sign or veto H.13, the legislature's latest budget bill. His signing it would avoid the prospect of a shutdown while setting aside remaining unresolved issues, including the legislature's desire to use unanticipated revenue to pay down overdue obligations in the teacher pension fund. Scott wants to use the money to keep nonresidential property tax rates level.
Scott made it clear he will veto the bill, but not until sometime Thursday evening — not because he hasn't made up his mind, but because he said he wants to give lawmakers one last chance to come to the table.
Of course, when the governor said those words, he wasn't at his table. He was in a rough-hewn building on the shore of Lake Elmore.
Ashe indicated that if Scott vetoes the budget, the legislature will try to override it. That would be a heavy lift in the House, where the Democratic majority would need some independent and Republican votes for an override.
"I hope that House Republicans and independents who voted for the bill will continue to support it," said Ashe.
That seems like a long shot. It's one thing for a Republican to break from the caucus on a floor vote; it's a much different thing to ask them to stick it to their own governor by helping override a crucial veto.
If the override were to fail, Ashe said the legislature would begin working on yet another budget bill. Neither side seems prepared to blink.
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.