After declaring an impasse Friday afternoon, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) gaveled out her chamber and summoned Republican Gov. Phil Scott to deliver a customary end-of-session address. But the Senate had other ideas.
In an unexpected twist, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) refused to adjourn for the year and scheduled another Senate session for next Wednesday. He called on House members to change their minds and return next week to reach a deal.
“We’ve created an opening,” Ashe said of his last-ditch legislative gambit, “and we believe it wouldn’t take much time really to close that last gap.”
On his way out of the Statehouse Friday evening, Scott shook his head in disbelief at the Dems’ disarray.
“It’s very bizarre,” said the governor, who has served in state government since 2001. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Speaking to reporters late Friday in his Statehouse office, Ashe expressed optimism that the elusive deal was still in sight. “I think we all feel that it’s so doable that it makes sense to come back,” he said.
But even as he made those remarks, House members filed out of the building carrying boxes of their belongings. Through Ashe’s window, representatives could be seen hugging and bidding one another farewell for the year.
The two chambers, both of which are dominated by Democrats and Progressives, have battled over the bills for months.
Scott, for his part, has expressed skepticism about both initiatives, arguing that they are too expensive and could harm Vermont businesses. Though he has not explicitly stated whether he would veto either bill, many in the Statehouse believe that to be the case.
News of the breakdown in negotiations was not received well by some.
Jubilee McGill, a leader of the activist group Rights & Democracy, stormed out of the Senate chamber when it became clear that neither bill would make its way to Scott.
“It feels like egos really got in the way of progress this session,” she said later, on the verge of tears.
Main Street Alliance of Vermont lobbyist Ashley Moore, whose progressive business organization has been a leading champion of the paid leave proposal, said she was disappointed but respected Johnson’s decision to hold out for a better deal.
“At the end of the day, if you can’t be proud of the end result, I believe it’s better to wait and do it right,” Moore said.
The dysfunctional day of competing parliamentary maneuvers and dueling press conferences started ominously when, just before 10:30 a.m., Johnson released to the media a letter to Ashe summing up the state of negotiations.
“At this point, we seem to be at impasse,” she wrote.
The speaker told Ashe that he had until noon to agree to one of five compromise proposals acceptable to her members. If he refused to do so, she wrote, the Senate should pass the remaining budget and revenue bills and bring the session to a close.
“It’s time to wrap up and go home,” Johnson wrote.
Noon passed and there was no agreement.
The two leaders met midafternoon — Ashe with sandwich in hand — in Johnson’s office, but evidently made no headway. The pro tem emerged without comment. The speaker told members of the press that the House would soon adjourn and take the bills up again next January.
“We keep discussing different things and we don’t feel like there’s been a whole lot of movement,” Johnson said in an interview. “I think at this point we’re out of time.”
The speaker added that, by pausing the process until next year, legislators would have the chance to better understand the governor’s concerns — and strengthen her caucus’ resolve, should he choose to veto the bills.
An hour after the meeting concluded, Ashe issued a written statement suggesting that the Senate hadn’t quite given up hope.
“My Senate colleagues and I recognize the strong negotiating position the Speaker holds,” Ashe said in the statement. “Our priority is to accomplish the mutual goals of delivering economic relief to Vermonters in the form of a robust paid leave program and a meaningful increase to the minimum wage.”
The pro tem wrote that the Senate would send “compromises on both” bills to the House.
As they were preparing to do so, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and Democrat, cautioned his colleagues not to get “wrapped up in the moment-to-moment melee” of the Statehouse.
“I hope this body will pause and reflect, and I hope others will pause and reflect, on how we should best serve the state of Vermont.”
With the House resolved to adjourn, Senate leadership concluded that the best course of action was to figure out a way to keep the session alive — at least, in theory. So when the House sent the budget bill to the Senate late Friday, the latter body kicked it back to the former, along with new offers on minimum wage and paid family leave.
Though the House passed a resolution to adjourn, such measures must be approved by both chambers to take effect. Because the Senate did not follow suit, the House is not technically in adjournment.
The latest Senate proposal would raise the minimum wage to $12.20 by 2021 — less than the $12.25 it offered the day before and the $12.50 it had pitched in previous weeks. (The Senate’s original plan would have raised the wage to $15 an hour by 2024.) The new offer included a concession to the House calling for studies on the impact of the raised wage on providers of Medicaid-funded services such as nursing home care, as well as tipped, student and agricultural workers.
The Senate’s latest paid leave proposal also moved toward the House’s position, allowing personal disability insurance as an optional benefit for workers who paid for it.
Ashe described the differences between the House and Senate positions as “razor thin” and a “whisker-width distance.”
Asked to explain why, then, the two bodies couldn’t bridge the gap, Ashe effectively blamed the House for “pressures” and “issues” preventing them from acting decisively.
“I’ve always told the speaker I don’t envy her role,” the pro tem said.
Ashe noted that the risk of a veto by the governor made the negotiations particularly fraught this year.
The goal all along had been to craft something that could become law, said Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windam). The Senate was “not interested in passing something” that would just be vetoed, she said.
Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor), who was also on the Senate negotiation team, said she didn’t think a gubernatorial veto on the bills was certain.
She noted that lawmakers had made a number of concessions to address the governor’s concerns, including allowing a third-party administrator to run the paid leave program and keeping its cost down to 2 cents per every $10 earned.
“We’re hopeful he will look at it with new eyes,” Clarkson said.
That now seems unlikely, unless the House does an about-face very soon.
That’s something Rep. Pattie McCoy (R-Poultney), the House minority leader, said is highly unlikely. She said she trusts Johnson as a person of her word and has no reason to believe the speaker would reverse course and call representatives back next week.
“I can’t see anything like that happening,” McCoy 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.