BRATTLEBORO—The 2017 legislative session started quietly in Montpelier.
The level of alignment between the priorities of Democrat-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Phil Scott on issues like mental health, child care, the opioid crisis, and the budget made for a relatively tranquil session.
That wasn’t a surprise. As a senator and lieutenant governor, Scott held a reputation for sitting everyone down at the table and hashing out solutions to divisive problems.
But then, mere weeks before the Legislature adjourned, the kumbaya stopped and the political battles began.
For two Windham County lawmakers who are leaders in their respective chambers, what started as a strong session, ended because of — in their opinion — Scott’s poor leadership.
Scott has, in their view, usurped his own authority and given it to staffers who, rather than being experts in their fields, are ideologues.
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, and House Majority Whip Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, expect the 2018 Legislative session to be different.
Scott wasn’t the governor anyone expected him to be, the lawmakers said.
“I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility as an elected official to get it right,” Balint said. “Nobody elects us to be a rubber stamp. I don’t care if it’s a Democrat in the governor’s office or a Republican.”
Toleno said, “What we learned this year is that we could have the collaborative rug pulled out from underneath us at the last second and I think that makes us gun-shy. I think we’ll play with sharper elbows.”
‘Boring Session,’ meet ‘Political Firestorm’
The 2017 budget process followed the normal budget- building process, Balint and Toleno said. Most unusual was the budget’s high approval among legislators in both chambers, where it passed 143 to 1 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.
“That’s unheard of,” Balint said.
But the collaborative process later broke down under what both lawmakers called a “political moment.”
Scott threatened to veto the appropriations and tax — or yield — bills in favor of changes to teachers’ health insurance.
According to Toleno, Scott created a “political firestorm” when he jumped into the budget process at the last minute. Toleno said the governor had positioned himself as the champion of reorganizing how health insurance for teachers and support staff is negotiated.
“He did so in a way which upended a pretty amazing, feel-good process around the budget that was very short-lived,” Toleno continued.
Balint added, “The opposition was never about the spending priorities, it was not about the appropriations, it was about this separate issue connected to the yield bill around how we would deal with” teacher and support staff insurance.
She continued, “It was remarkable to have Republican Senators stand up on the floor when we first passed the budget and say ‘I have never once voted for a budget, I always vote no.’
“And then just a few weeks later when the governor signaled now he didn’t support it — because of the battle over teacher health insurance — those same Republican Senators stood up and said ‘I really, really like this budget but I’m not going to vote for it this time.’”
The lawmakers noted that most of the public discussion fell on teachers’ health benefits. But, they said, Scott’s plans also included paraprofessionals and support staff who aren’t compensated in the same way as teachers.
“Any changes in health-care benefits [are] going to greatly impact [paraprofessional and support staff’s] bottom line month-to-month, and that was very troubling to us,” Balint said.
Balint said the Legislature’s response to the governor’s health insurance idea was the same as it was to all of the sweeping changes he offered during the session: Put it through the legislative process.
In Balint’s opinion, a citizen legislature is at a “distinct disadvantage.” As the issues like insurance or energy become more complex, the lawmakers haven’t gained additional staff to help them vet information.
She stresses this isn’t a complaint, but it is a reason why the body keeps calling for “due diligence.”
Through multiple news releases and press conferences, Scott outlined his belief that the state could save $26 million if teachers negotiated their health insurance directly with the state and not local school boards.
With the threat of a government shutdown on July 1 hanging in the air, the administration and legislature returned for a special veto session on June 21 and negotiated.
Toleno said the $1.5 billion budget that eventually passed was almost identical to the one Scott vetoed. But Scott did save approximately $13 million by using spending thresholds to curtail spending on education health benefits.
The mechanism used to ensure savings became known as the Ashe Amendment. It was named after Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, who had the dubious honor of having his name at the top of the list of all those who had signed onto the legislation.
In brief, the amendment sets spending thresholds based on comparisons of fiscal year 2017 to 2018, Balint said. School districts that spend above the threshold will have the money they receive from the state cut by the same amount.
Some school districts completed their contract negotiations before the special veto session and may already be on the wrong side of the Ashe thresholds.
Balint and Toleno said the $13 million saved means taxpayers will see a reduction of approximately $10 to $15 per $200,000 of assessed house value.
“It’s mostly symbolic,” Toleno said. He added that while Scott championed the health insurance idea, the idea was never his but came from, in part, the Vermont School Board Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association.
Balint noted that the $26 million was only ever a concept. That bottom line was predicated on every school board returning their respective savings to the state. But, she added, most school boards have other pressing financial needs, such as fixing roofs or buying new lab equipment.
It’s unlikely the whole $26 million would have gone back to the taxpayers, she said.
Balint said she wanted people to understand: The Legislature and Governor Scott are experiencing an “unusual dynamic.”
She describes one moment in time that shifted the relationship.
“At some point during the session, a directive came from the Fifth Floor — and we’re still not clear who that came from — whether it was from the governor or one of his team members — but it was that nobody in the governor’s immediate staff would fraternize at all with any legislators,” Balint said. “When those conversations don’t happen, it [the legislative process] becomes completely bifurcated.”
The way Vermont government is structured, the Legislature develops the policy — or plan — and then the administration executes it, Toleno said. When the Administration refuses to have conversations, “that undermines the whole process for Vermonters” and develops less effective public policy.
Toleno characterized Scott’s relationship with the Legislature as “a bunker mentality” that, if it continues, will only make things worse for Vermonters.
Toleno said that, traditionally in Montpelier, legislators build policy through a combination of formal and informal processes. The formal includes the committee hearings, floor debates, and public documents. The informal consists of discussions over lunch, or quiet moments in the hallway.
He continued saying that what he saw this year was that the Administration refused to have either public or informal conversations with members of the Legislature.
“They didn’t seem to understand or value the deep tradition of finding quiet ways to work together so that then the public ways could start to show up,” Toleno said.
Scott’s identity crisis?
Balint said that Scott stepped into the governorship with “a tremendous” amount of goodwill, support, and trust in the Senate. It was hard for many of his peers to swallow Scott’s budget veto, she said.
Toleno believes that, despite its frustration, the Legislature could quickly rebuild bridges. The governor, however, needs to take a hard look at himself.
“The challenge here is that the governor has to decide who he is,” Toleno said.
He hopes Scott will take this summer and do just that.
“Because I don’t think the Phil Scott we’ve seen as governor is who we thought he would be,” Toleno said.
It felt to Toleno that, as a leader, Scott “wasn’t confident leading his own team, so he made the choice to be very staff-dependent and very staff-driven.”
Toleno is blunt, “I don’t think he has been able to lead his staff.”
Balint said Scott “cares deeply” about the opioid crisis and how it hurts schools. He cares about workforce development and strengthening the economy. He cares about families living in poverty, she said.
“If he can can get back to his core values, and principles, and policies, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of work we can do together,” Balint said. “But if his people on his team care more about PR and optics, and they are the ones with the megaphone, that’s not going to happen.”
Or, “some of the old Vermont Yankee Republicanism, which was thoughtful and slow, but could ultimately find its way to very progressive thinking,” Toleno added.
Balint said one way forward is to keep reminding the governor and his team that the Legislature are policy-driven.
“We want to deliver good policy that takes care of the most vulnerable,” she said.
Balint is prepared to keep making policy despite Scott’s threatened vetoes.
“And, if he’s not choosing to collaborate with us, then he won’t have an opportunity to influence our thinking,” Toleno said. “And that will be his choice.”
Toleno pointed to the staffers who Scott hired.
“Instead of choosing to be bipartisan in his hiring, and to hire for real competence and knowledge ... they hired people who were clearly ideological.”
He didn’t want to name names, but Toleno did say that in some key areas Scott hired people without any knowledge of the area they were hired to work in or how state government works.
“Strong ideologically, completely inexperienced,” Toleno said.
“No policy chops,” Balint said.
When asked if the Republican National Committee is trying to work through Scott to change the way progressive Vermont does business, Balint and Toleno didn’t give an unequivocal “yes.”
Nor did they give an unequivocal “no.”
Balint noted that the majority of state legislatures — 32 of 50 — are in GOP hands. The party is feeling “emboldened.”
Toleno said, “I think it is coming — the storm is coming.”
“Somewhere along the way, my feeling is, the national Republican Party said, [to Scott] ‘you’re doing great work, you have an opportunity to weaken the teachers’ unions and you have an opportunity to do some real damage there and you cannot let your foot off the gas,’” Toleno said.
Toleno said Scott took outside money for his gubernatorial race, and that the National Governors Association is putting political pressure on him.
“And no one has gotten to the bottom of why he was willing to do all of this damage for something that’s really so small,” said Toleno.
“The amount of savings to taxpayers, although important, it’s not a significant dollar amount,” Balint said, adding that “you can’t help but think there were so many ideological underpinnings.”
Toleno said that Republican political operatives have pledged to infuse new money in Vermont elections. Some, he said, showed up in Montpelier in the middle of the session — about the time things became very political.
“We take that threat very seriously. We in the House are hoping to be competitive in every single race in the state, and we were definitely impacted in the last election cycle by ads targeting certain Democrats in certain areas,” Toleno said.
Toleno has tremendous respect for what he calls the “old Yankee Republicanism,” like former Gov. and U.S. Sen. George Aiken of Putney. But, he said, the generation of people who embodied that practicality and collegiality are dying out.
In the House, Toleno figures about five to 10 lawmakers reflect that worldview. The younger generation of Republicans in his chamber are far more ideological, he said.
“When we lose that [older generation], it means we’re going to be in an even-more-hyper-partisan [environment] in Vermont without the tools we’ve had of a historical commitment to collaboration,” Toleno said.
“We are a bastion of progressive liberalism, and something will be lost if Republicans feel they can make significant inroads into a state that is really looking out for the most vulnerable consistently in its policy,” Balint said. “If that shift happens here, that certainly is a signal to the nation at large ... whether the nation at large pays attention or not is another matter.”