Walters: Facing Deep Divides, Vermont Legislators Delay Adjournment | Off Message

Walters: Facing Deep Divides, Vermont Legislators Delay Adjournment


Sen. Phil Baruth addresses the committee. Sen. Ruth Hardy is at left. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Sen. Phil Baruth addresses the committee. Sen. Ruth Hardy is at left.
House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on a bill to test for the presence of lead in the water supplies of all Vermont schools and childcare facilities. The last-minute accord came Friday after an argumentative process that saw each side battling for every inch of ground.

Still, the two chambers remain divided over many key issues, including a proposed increase in the minimum wage, establishment of a paid family leave program and a long-term funding source for cleaning up Vermont's waterways.

With these and other issues still unresolved, legislative leaders gave up on earlier plans to adjourn this weekend. Instead, lawmakers will return next week for what they hope will be a brief, two- or three-day session that would conclude before the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

Legislators did manage to resolve some disputes before hitting the highway Friday.

The final element in the lead compromise came from Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), chair of the conference committee appointed to reconcile differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions of the bill, S.40. She identified ways to close a $300,000 gap between the two plans — $180,000 of which would come from a federal grant program for testing water supplies for lead. State officials, working with Webb, secured federal approval to devote the $180,000 to school lead testing.
After Senate Education Committee chair Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) reiterated that his chamber could not add any more funding to the bill, Webb offered to close the remaining gap by lowering the estimated cost of testing. Baruth quickly agreed. (If the testing costs more, the two sides agreed that any overage could be made good in the midyear budget adjustment process.)

Elsewhere in the Statehouse, House-Senate comity was in shorter supply. According to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), it became clear to her as early as Wednesday that there were too many "issues to be settled" to adjourn by this weekend. That would require wrapping up the major budget and revenue bills by Friday in order to give members a full 24 hours to review them before voting late Saturday.

If the budget and tax bills had been finalized, would the legislature have adjourned this weekend? "Yes," Johnson said. Even if it would have meant that some policy bills would fail to pass? "Anything undone this year could be taken up in January," she replied.

The same may well be true next week, the speaker added. Which may spell trouble for a number of high-profile bills over which the House and Senate remain at odds.

The two chambers have very different ideas about how to pay for waterways cleanup. The House has approved a tax on cloud-based software, which the Senate rejected out of hand. On Friday, the Senate Finance Committee identified the rooms and meals tax as its preferred source, though it did not actually vote on the plan. The tax would be increased from the current 9 percent to 10 percent.

On Thursday, the House gave final passage to its version of a minimum wage increase. While the Senate's version of the bill guaranteed a $15 per hour minimum by 2024, the House approved a more moderate version. It would get to $15 by increasing the minimum wage by 2.25 times the rate of inflation every year. Those hikes would pause if the state were to experience a recession.

Initial reactions from senators were unfavorable.

"We approved a very modest proposal with a five-year rollout," said Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), chair of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee. "To potentially go to a [longer] rollout, that won't fly in the Senate." His committee met Friday afternoon and issued a statement saying that it "cannot support the House-passed minimum wage plan."

Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) concurred. "I'd rather do nothing than do something bad and give people the impression we've done something worthy," he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate has delayed action on its version of paid family leave, which is the House's preferred vehicle for helping working Vermonters. Senators had given preliminary approval Wednesday to a diluted version of the House plan — but Friday afternoon, the chamber postponed a scheduled final vote.

There appears to be a standoff between House and Senate on paid leave and minimum wage, with each chamber dissatisfied with the other's actions and neither wanting to blink first. The situation will remain unresolved into next week, though unofficial communications may well occur between now and then. 

All this doesn't address the larger question: Would Gov. Phil Scott sign or veto any of the big bills, including the budget? That remains very much unknown. But it may be that some of those bills will never reach his desk.

Correction, May 17, 2019: The original version of this story misstated the process for paying any unfunded costs of lead testing.