Leaders of the Vermont legislature continued their end-of-session scramble Thursday to see if they could strike a deal to raise the minimum wage to $12.25 over two years and also craft a strong paid family leave program.
Lawmakers eager to adjourn for the Memorial Day weekend found themselves waiting to see if Democratic leaders of the Senate and House could hammer out a grand compromise around their two remaining — some would say competing — legislative priorities.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) announced Thursday evening that negotiators were making “good progress” on “a few of the outstanding issues” and that it made sense for the Senate to adjourn until 10 a.m. Friday.
He cited a Senate colleague’s past advice that “sometimes the best thing to do is have a night’s sleep and make sure you don’t make any mistakes and come back fresh.”
Ashe declined to answer questions about the alleged progress being made, but a lawmaker involved in the negotiations outlined the framework of the potential deal.
It calls for the House to increase the minimum wage — a Senate priority — to $12.25 in 2021 instead of the $12.50 most recently proposed by the Senate. That’s still a 13.6 percent increase over the current minimum wage of $10.78 per hour.
In exchange, the Senate has agreed to restore personal medical insurance to the
paid family leave program — a House priority — which it previously stripped to keep program costs down. It would now be an optional benefit that employees could decide to purchase for themselves. Employers would not be required to pay for any of the program benefits.
One of the key Senate negotiators, Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham), declined to detail the areas of agreement or dispute but confirmed the basic outlines of the discussions. She stressed that the sides have significant unresolved issues.
“We don’t have a deal yet,” Balint said Thursday evening. “If we did, we’d have been here until midnight to get it done.”
Also unclear is whether Republican Gov. Phil Scott would sign either bill. His spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, noted the governor had made it pretty clear he didn’t support a mandatory paid family leave program. He also has concerns about how the minimum wage increase would impact the state budget, something that would need more analysis, she said.
The last-minute agreement capped a day of behind-the-scenes dealmaking evident only by the scurrying of legislators, lobbyists and financial analysts in and out of the closed offices of legislative power brokers.
Republicans were not pleased by the belated nature of the discussions.
Rep. Pattie McCoy (R-Poultney) lamented that she and her colleagues were ready to approve the must-pass budget and revenue bills but could not do so due to “11th hour” Democratic maneuvering.
“They’re holding them hostage because they’re trying get a deal on paid family leave and minimum wage,” McCoy said.
The 43 House Republicans don’t have a lot of power in their 150-member chamber. But because it requires the support of three-fourths of the body to suspend the rules and expedite consideration of a bill, GOP reps could slow-walk any last-minute deal.
“I would absolutely not suspend rules,” McCoy declared Thursday. “We don’t like these bills. We’ve never liked them.”
That means that even if Democrats were to strike a deal amongst themselves, Republicans could hold it up for a bit, possibly until Saturday or — due to the holiday weekend and plans for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to hold a rally outside the Statehouse on Saturday — Tuesday.
McCoy placed any blame for the delay squarely on the Democrats, saying the lack of a deal before now shows “something’s wrong.”
“We have seen nothing from anyone for weeks and weeks and weeks, and now all of sudden, suspend the rules so we can pass these and adjourn?" McCoy asked. "And they’re going to call us obstructionist?"
Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) said he was not surprised but was nonetheless disappointed by the last-minute nature of the Democratic dealmaking.
“When you try to do something in a real rush, at the end of the legislative session, that is when the law of unintended consequences is most likely to rear its ugly head,” Brock said.
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.