Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (left) and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson on a happier occasion
With virtually every other issue settled for the legislative session, Democratic leaders in the Vermont House and Senate wrangled throughout the day Thursday trying to reach common ground on their two top priorities: a minimum wage increase and a statewide paid family leave program.
Lobbyists, reporters and observers spent the day searching desperately for scraps of information and trading rumors of dubious parentage. It was possible to hear completely contradictory tales within minutes of each other: Talks have broken off! A deal is imminent! They're still trying! They've given up!
Whenever negotiators showed their faces, they'd quick-walk down the hallway or march in a tight huddle or hunch over their smartphones. Anything to avoid the pleadings of the press corps.
Going into the day, the two chambers were at odds over fundamental aspects of the two issues. The House wanted a robust family leave program, while senators were deeply concerned about its cost. The Senate favored a substantial raise in the minimum wage and balked at a House version that charted a longer, less-certain course to the magic number of $15 an hour.
As evening drew nigh, both chambers adjourned for the night with lawmakers skedaddling and leaders saying as little as possible. We were assured that progress was being made, communication remained open and leadership was doing everything it can to make a deal.
Maybe they can still pull it off, although quitting for the night wasn't a good sign. And maybe they'd be better off just giving up for the session. If they do reach a deal, it will have been consummated in the least democratic way possible. There would be no time for serious consideration. The deal would be fast-tracked through the legislature with no chance for public reaction. And then it would most likely be vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
Plus, whatever survives of minimum wage and paid leave are almost certain to be unsatisfactory to those who care about the issues — progressive political groups, advocates for working Vermonters, the voters who gave Democrats huge victories last November. The only positive would be that House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) could claim to have avoided an embarrassing twin defeat.
The 2019 session has, in truth, been a fairly productive one. The legislature has approved legislation on funding a waterways cleanup plan, boosting state funding for rural broadband, banning single-use plastic bags, mandating a waiting period for handgun purchases, creating a statewide program to test school and childcare facility water supplies for lead, and requiring testing for a class of chemicals known as PFAS in drinking water supplies. In addition, the tax and budget bills have moved along with little controversy or fanfare.
But Democratic candidates in 2018 strongly emphasized three issues: climate change, minimum wage and paid family leave. The legislature took only modest action on climate, while continuing to trumpet the other two issues throughout the session. There are noteworthy accomplishments, but it's hard to declare victory when you have to scramble until the very last possible minute to produce modest results on your biggest promises.
The session will continue Friday — and perhaps even into next week, after Memorial Day. A grand bargain may emerge. But even if it does, it may not be worth all the stress and secrecy of the process. And no one is going to be happy with the results.
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.