Reps. James Gregoire, Kate Webb and Kathleen James
In January, it seemed like the slam-dunkiest of legislative slam-dunks. After random tests found elevated lead levels in some schools' drinking water, Gov. Phil Scott proposed testing every tap and fountain in public schools across the state. Everyone understood that this was a critical situation that needed immediate action.
Fast forward five months later to Wednesday afternoon, and agreement on a lead-testing bill remained elusive. A House-Senate conference committee held three meetings and reached agreement on multiple key points — but its last meeting of the day adjourned abruptly with both sides trying to place the ball in the other's court.
The panel had agreed to include all licensed childcare facilities as well as schools. The actionable lead level was set at four parts per billion — a middle ground between the Senate's insistence on three parts per billion and the House's preferred five.
The panel has had a brief and difficult life, as conferees from the House and Senate education committees have been loath to give ground to the other side. Members of both chambers clung tenaciously to differences in their proposals that could barely be measured in parts per billion. A meeting Tuesday ended with the Senate contingent walking out.
The atmosphere felt different Wednesday, as members voiced respect for their counterparts and expressed understanding of each other's views. But as the day wore on, the collegial veneer began to crack.
The final sticking point concerned a proposal from House members to include a $500 deductible in the state's formula for reimbursing schools, meaning that each school would have to pay the first $500 for any lead remediation work. The rationale for exempting childcare operations is that many of them are small businesses that would be hard-pressed to absorb a $500 hit. They presented the deductible as a way to stretch available dollars further. Senators had made it plain that they were not willing to go above $3 million for the program.
"We cannot agree to the deductible because it wasn't in the original House or Senate bills," said Senate Education Committee chair Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden). "Also, we don't like it."
That triggered a discussion over proper conference committee procedure. Baruth insisted that a final agreement could not stray from the provisions in the House or Senate bills. House Education Committee chair Kate Webb (D-Shelburne) had a different view. "We need to think outside the box in order to meet your number," she said.
Rep. James Gregoire (R-Fairfield) said the House conferees' plan would allow for fairer distribution of funds. "If we don't go with the deductible, childcare centers will have to pay more," he said, "and they don't have access to taxpayer money, unlike the schools."
Rep. Kathleen James (D-Manchester) also argued for her side's proposed compromise. "This funnels more money to those who need it most: the childcare facilities and schools with more to remediate," she said.
Baruth would not be moved. "It's irresponsible to add this at the last minute and outside the scope of how these committees work," he said.
As it became clear that the members remained divided between House and Senate, Webb said, "Perhaps we're done now?"
Baruth acknowledged that his conferees were not prepared to budge on the deductible or add roughly $200,000 in additional money needed to avoid the deductible. "I have gone to our Appropriations Committee twice," he said. "There is no more money."
"You can't find another $200,000?" Webb replied. "It's up to you. This is our offer."
Baruth returned serve. "It's up to you," he said. "We're happy to meet anytime."
With that, the six members walked out as quickly as they could, without scheduling another meeting. And after all these months, the fate of this session's sure-shot, no-problem piece of legislation still hangs in the balance.
Correction, May 16, 2019: An earlier version of this story misstated the scope of the $500 deductible for remediation work. The deductible would only apply to schools.