BRATTLEBORO—As the end of this year’s legislative session approached, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, was feeling pretty good.
“Everything was going smoothly,” Ashe told The Commons last month about his first year in charge of the Senate. “Things were working well and we were having a positive session. This wasn’t a session where we were dealing with sweeping changes, it was just a session where we did just a plain good job.”
But two weeks before a scheduled adjournment, Gov. Phil Scott made a proposal — switching to a statewide public school teachers’ health insurance plan that Scott said would save the state up $26 million.
Ashe said the Scott administration never formally reviewed the proposal, which the governor wanted to put in effect immediately, with the start of the 2018 fiscal year on July 1. He also said Scott’s plan would disrupt local school district budgets that had already been approved for the 2017-18 school year.
“I didn’t think they meant this year,” Ashe said, “but we soon realized the governor wasn’t joking around. I knew he was serious when the flow of emails and op-ed and letters from his campaign increased. Once I saw that, I knew the [2018 gubernatorial] campaign was already on.”
Scott sent a clear message to lawmakers — approve the FY2018 budget with the health insurance proposal, or he would veto the budget.
After some tense negotiations, the House and Senate approved a compromise proposal that seeks to move the state’s teachers toward a statewide plan by 2019.
The House and Senate passed the state budget and the education property tax bill, which both had broad support before Scott’s last minute proposal, and adjourned shortly after midnight on May 20.
The vote was mostly along party lines. The budget passed, 22-6, in the Senate and 97-41 in the House. The Senate approved the education bill, 20-8, while it got through the House by an 84-54 vote.
As promised, Scott vetoed the bills on June 6.
The House and Senate are scheduled to return to Montpelier on June 21, less than 10 days before the start of FY 2018.
A two-thirds majority is needed to override the vetoes. Democrats have a majority in both houses, but would need help from independents and Progressives to get enough votes for an override.
Some feared that a veto might force a shutdown of state government. But Scott took that scenario off the table on May 19, when he said at a news conference that while he planned to veto the bills, he wouldn’t risk starting a new fiscal year without a state budget.
“If the veto is sustained, I’m confident we can come to an agreement that ensures Vermonters benefit from this unique savings opportunity, and when we do, these bills will be improved, we will be more fiscally secure, and Vermonters will be better for it,” Scott said in his June 6 veto message.
Ashe says he isn’t certain what happens next, but is sure of one thing, there’s now “a different tone” in the relationship between the governor and the Legislature.
“The governor has a right to propose something, even at the last minute of the budget process, but linking a policy proposal that’s not part of the original budget to the final plan is not normally done.”
Both Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, expressed disappointment that the dispute with the governor forced them to twice postpone adjournment. They both advised members last month to rest up and get ready for returning to Montpelier on June 21.
“The timing of the governor’s proposal [was] the source of the turmoil over the last few weeks of the session,” Ashe said.