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Left to right: Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican; Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham County), House Assistant Majority Leader and Whip Emily Long (D-Newfane); and House Assistant Majority Leader Tristan Toleno (D-Brattleboro).

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Democrats resolve to pass signature bills by Town Meeting

The Senate and House leadership plans to pass minimum-wage, paid-family-leave legislation by Town Meeting Day — and the governor has drawn some boundaries on what he will and won’t support

BRATTLEBORO—On day one of the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers will be greeted by bills to raise the minimum wage and to create a paid-family-leave insurance program.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, said that her goal is to get that legislation passed through both the House of Representatives and the State Senate by Town Meeting Day.

“So we have been in communication with the House, the [Senate president] pro tem, and the speaker, are all in agreement that those bills need to happen right when we get back,” Balint added.

Town Meeting Day coincides with “crossover” in the Legislature, when bills must move from one chamber to the other.

“That’s sort of dominating a lot of the work we’re doing right now as a caucus,” House Assistant Majority Leader and Whip Emily Long, D-Newfane, said.

Long is in charge of making connections among caucus members.

“I always see my job as a whip as informing our caucus members about legislation that’s coming,” she said.

Yes, Long also counts votes, but she believes that her job is more about speaking with members early in the life cycle of a bill so, if they have feedback about legislation still in committee, those proposed changes can be considered appropriately.

“So my job is really to make sure our caucus has all its questions answered before [a bill] gets to the floor,” Long said.

The Democratic majority in the State House have identified minimum wage and paid family insurance as the caucus’s top pieces of legislation. Last session, however, the two chambers could not agree on the bills and neither passed.

House Assistant Majority Leader Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, expects Governor Phil Scott to veto whatever minimum-wage or paid-family-leave bills the Legislature passes.

Scott, a Republican, has repeatedly opposed both pieces of legislation.

“That will set up a reminder to Vermonters of the fact that there is a very big difference between the governing majorities in the House and the Senate and the governor on a lot of big issues,” Toleno said. “And this will just be an early signal of the fact that the governor is — we think — on the wrong side of most of the major issues that matter to Vermonters.”

Governor’s office eyes legislation

Scott and his administration have said they are focused on making Vermont more affordable. His administration has also raised the alarm about the need to address the state’s population trends, such as its aging population and declining workforce.

Scott’s communications director, Rebecca Kelley, said in an email that the governor is not prepared to comment on whether he’d veto new versions of the legislation.

“There were multiple options and versions left on the table last year and without knowing what might pass — and what the costs and economic impacts might be — the governor is not going to speculate,” wrote Kelley.

“That said, the governor remains committed to making Vermont more affordable for Vermonters, so he’s not supportive of increasing the payroll tax on working Vermonters, legislation that makes it harder for Vermont employers to compete, proposals that cause the cost of goods and services to increase, or proposals that will eliminate jobs.”

According to Kelley, Scott favors “organic wage growth” over a “mandated” approach.

“Governor Scott wants to see wages rise — and wages are rising — but the data does not show that a mandated increase will achieve the positive outcomes for workers it’s intended to achieve,” Kelley wrote.

In 2017, Tom Kavat, the Legislature’s economist, issued a report that analyzed the potential consequences of a $15-per-hour minimum wage in the state.

Kelley said Kavat’s report “has validated many of the concerns the governor has about the negative economic impacts of artificial increases in wages — including job losses, hour reductions and disadvantaging Vermont small businesses, particularly those in the more rural parts of our state and along the borders.”

Measured in 2017 dollars, the buying power of the state’s minimum wage hit its high point in 1968, according to the report, which also warned that positive effects would be offset by adverse consequences — including the loss of 3,000 jobs by 2028.

Kelley noted that Scott wants, instead, to take a different approach, one that he believes will help Vermonters’ bottom lines while keeping the costs to businesses down.

“Governor Scott believes organic wage growth through a strong economy — supported by his work to ensure Vermonters keep more of what they earn by making Vermont more affordable and the workforce training programs Vermonters need to get higher wage jobs — is a more progressive and sustainable way to increase wages,” Kelley wrote. “There are also other policies that can be used to help lift low-wage workers up the economic ladder, and we hope to explore more of those with the Legislature.”

Kelley wrote that Scott views the paid family medical leave insurance program he’s seen floated by the Legislature as “a $25-$80 million payroll tax on all working Vermonters (even those who are not able to receive the benefit).”

Last year, Scott proposed an alternative family medical leave insurance plan in collaboration with New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. Participation in the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan would be open to businesses in and residents of both states. The anchor members in the plan would be the 18,500 government employees from the two states.

This plan “is a better, faster, and more economically responsible way to build a paid-leave program that can be scaled,” Kelley wrote.

To find more information on the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan, visit governor.vermont.gov/press-release/governor-chris-sununu-and-governor-phil-scott-introduce-twin-state-voluntary-leave.

Despite Scott’s focus, Toleno charges that the Governor has “done surprisingly little” to provide substantive solutions to the state’s long-term demographic or workforce issues.

“Obviously, we think that if you pay people better, particularly with entry-level jobs, it’s easier for people to be successful in the economy,” Toleno said. “We believe that robust paid-family-leave insurance and higher wages are an attractor for out-of-state workers to come to Vermont and take positions.”

Balint said that if the governor vetoes the bills, the party will work to build the votes to override the decision.

Will Scott’s waiting-period veto survive?

Balint added that the Senate might also revisit legislation that both bodies passed in the last session to create a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases.

Scott vetoed the bill in June, noting the sufficiency of the package of “historic gun safety reforms” that he had already signed into law.

“With these measures in place, we must now prioritize strategies that address the underlying causes of violence and suicide,” he wrote in his veto. “I do not believe S.169 addresses these areas.”

Opponents have said the bill adds an unnecessary restriction when purchasing a handgun.

While “we believe in the Senate we might be able to get the two-thirds [votes] needed to override,” Balint said, whether that is true in the House is “an open question.”

According to Balint, Vermont’s suicide rate is 35 percent higher than the national average and guns are used in approximately 59 percent of Vermont suicide deaths. That’s over 50 percent higher than the rate nationally, she said.

“So we do see it as a suicide-prevention bill, and we know suicide disproportionally impacts male, rural Vermonters,” she said.

Last session was marked by big bills that didn’t pass such as the minimum wage and paid family leave. Lawmakers also failed to cross the finish line to create a tax-and- regulate system for marijuana.

But other bills were successful and have become state law.

Scott has signed 82 bills from the 2019 session into law, and an 83rd was enacted without his signature.

Act 79, a bill championed by Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), increases deployment of broadband in the state. This act also established a mechanism for towns and other regional entities to create municipal broadband districts.

Act 68, co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, designed to raise awareness of the potential health effects of military burn pits, was also passed. Along with creating public awareness materials, the bill also makes registering in the burn pit registry, maintained by the U.S. Department of Military Affairs, an opt-out process rather than an opt-in one.

Despite the state’s demographic challenges, and the Democrats still struggling with their capstone legislation, Toleno believes Vermont still has a good story to tell.

“Instead of spending all of the time telling the bad story that the governor likes to tell — that doesn’t inspire anyone to move here — we’d like to focus on a positive vision for where Vermont can go and how we can be leaders in the new rural economy,” Toleno said.

“I think our goal is to first and foremost signal that we’re a place that welcomes new workers and treats workers fairly with robust protections, good protections under labor laws, and good supports,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #539 (Wednesday, December 4, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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