BRATTLEBORO — In what has been described by many as “a lightning round,” state legislators returned to Montpelier on June 20 to override five gubernatorial vetos in one day, including the all-important state budget, which must go into effect on July 1.
The legislators' recall session had been expected to last three or even five days.
“The veto session was very efficient,” said Sen. Wendy Harrison, D-Windham. “We were advised to be prepared to be there for three days the first week and possibly another three days the following week.”
However, Harrison said, “we were able to get through all of the votes in one day, due to the cooperation between the Senate and the House as well as the Governor.”
The Commons has surveyed some members of the Windham County delegation to get their take on what happened there on June 20 - and what might happen next.
“I've seen headlines that focused on how quickly the Legislature moved in the 'veto session,' and yeah - we took the votes we needed to take and we went home,” said Rep. Tristan Roberts, D-Halifax.
“That is what our constituents sent us there to do,” he said. “We weren't there to debate the governor or debate each other. We did that over the course of the session and all of us have been considering our votes on these bills since the May adjournment.”
Rather, said Roberts, “We were there to vote on this handful of bills, which represented major policy priorities.”
The budget passes
The House of Representatives overrode Gov. Phil Scott's budget veto by a vote of 105–42. In the Senate, the override sailed through by a count of 25–5.
“The budget for FY24 adopted by the Legislature totals $8.45 billion and is actually less than the adjusted FY23 budget of $8.64 billion,” Harrison said.
Citing the Conference Committee - the lawmakers from both chambers who negotiate the differences in the two versions of the bill to get one final version that can be approved and sent to the governor for his signature - Harrison said the budget, as overridden, addresses many of Vermont's ongoing challenges while the state continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The budget meets pension, transportation, and clean water obligations, fills all statutorily required reserves, and makes essential investments in housing, workforce, economic development, human services, and the environment,” she said.
The crux of the differences between the budget as ultimately approved by the Legislature and the budget as proposed by the Scott administration was, “Do we make one-time, short-term investments in child care, housing, and climate, as the Governor proposed, or long-term investments as the Legislature proposed?” said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney.
“The Legislature chose to make long-term investments, and our budget prevailed,” he said, noting that without this strategy, Vermont might stagnate.
“We want to help create a state that keeps young families here and attracts young people from other places,” Mrowicki said. “To that end, we feel these investments in housing, work force, and child care, along with investing in a clean, green economy, will provide economic incentives to drive the economy of the future.”
And, in the energy economy, “to disconnect us from the uncertain economic winds of the fossil fuel cabals - especially when we see how erratic leaders like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin affect the world economy, right down to Vermont,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how things work out next year.”
The budget has money for new housing, among other initiatives. New money equals new opportunities.
“It reflects a commitment to address large problems with appropriate funding that will create future benefits,” said Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro.
Vermonters are worried about increased costs, about the scourge of drug addition and homelessness that seems to be sweeping the state, and about the possibilities of an uncertain future.
“Many are in crisis, including those who are unhoused,” Roberts said. “The governor's veto messages have a certain take on the future. The Democratic majority in the House spoke back, and our voice carried on some bills, and not on others.”
Roberts said that this voice “said that Vermont needs to make some shared policy priorities like affordable child care a little more reliable and robust for the long term, so that Vermonters will have the confidence to raise families here.”
“Our voice said that Vermont should pay for universal school meals so that all kids know they can get lunch without having to ask the state for assistance, while also learning,” he said.
The universal school meal bill, promoted in part by Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham, was vetoed by the governor; his veto was almost immediately overridden.
Lawmakers didn't even wait for the override session for that one.
The session did not look simple going in. A coalition of a dozen Democratic and Progressive leaders, including Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, were upset with the ending of the hotel-motel voucher system for homeless people. They formed a bloc and threatened to vote against overriding the budget veto, using that as leverage to get additional money for the approximately 1,200 homeless people statewide who have been housed through the voucher system.
Brattleboro has had about 220 homeless people staying in motels.
The bloc had enough votes to stall a veto override, but between the time the Legislative session ended and the veto-override session began, a compromise emerged.
“Prior to the session, a team, including Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, and Senate President Pro Tem Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, worked with the governor to craft an affordable, practical, and humane solution to the forced exodus of people from the hotel shelters,” Harrison said. “This solution was incorporated into a house bill (H.171) as the 'companion bill' to the budget.”
The bill preserves eligibility for households currently in the motel program until they find alternative living situations. It does not apply to those who had been evicted on June 1.
Scott approves of the new bill because it is not an extension of the voucher program but a way to smooth “a pathway for transitions,” said his press secretary Jason Maulucci.
The Democratic caucus held together on priority bills. The most important one, concerning child care, was a $120 million effort to increase the subsidies the state pays to child care providers on the parents' behalf.
The governor vetoed it because it was funded with a 0.44% payroll tax split between employers and employees.
One of the leaders of the effort to pump more money into childcare was Aly Richards, CEO of the nonprofit group Let's Grow Kids.
“We are on the doorstep of being able to stabilize our child care sector while also investing in the future of our state, thanks to the efforts of lawmakers and child care. We're equally capable champions in every corner of Vermont,” Richards said after the June 6 veto.
“On behalf of the tens of thousands of parents, grandparents, early childhood educators, and employers who are counting on this landmark bill to make Vermont more affordable, grow our economy and support our kids, we look forward to working with lawmakers to override this veto.”
That was something lawmakers did easily, claiming that even employers supported the bill because without it they could not find enough employees to fill jobs; if parents cannot find affordable childcare, they tend to stay home.
The bill's supporters also noted that even contractors were saying that the lack of child care severely impacted their workforce and had become a barrier to building more homes - something Vermont badly needs.
“This bill will have a long-lasting effect on the Vermont economy,” said Burke. “Contrary to the governor's point about affordability, I believe that these bills represent investments in the future of Vermont that will pay off in the years to come.”
Burke referred to a 2015 study done on Quebec's low-fee child care system.
“It found that while its intent was to benefit young children and help parents reconcile parental and professional duties, it increased women's participation in the labor force,” she said.
The change, she said, “also unexpectedly increased provincial [gross domestic product] by 1.7% and increased revenues to the province. For every dollar spent on subsidizing child care, the return was $1.20.”
It also “removed families from dependence on social services,” Burke said, calling the results in Canada “an example of the economic and social benefits of transformative investments like the child care bill.”
Harrison was proud that the House and Senate overrode the governor's veto so easily.
“The governor indicated that he vetoed the bill because of the payroll tax of 0.44%, a new tax,” Harrison said. “For the program to be effective, it was necessary to find a new revenue source. The new tax is paid three-quarters by the employer and one-quarter by the employee.
“An employee making $40,000 per year will pay $44 per year, and their employer will pay $132,” she continued. “An employer urging us to pass the bill said he'd calculated that his business would recover the additional monthly payroll cost in three days. And that's when a higher payroll tax rate was being considered.”
The bill increases subsidies to both child care providers and to families, so parents will be able to access better care provided by caregivers who are paid a reasonable wage.
Lawmakers also overrode a veto on a bill that adjusts fees at the Office of Professional Regulation; a charter change allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in Brattleboro; and another charter change allowing non-citizens to vote in Burlington.
They gave final approval to an expansion of the bottle bill, unfinished business from their session in May, which may be vetoed by the governor in the future.
Two vetoes were left unchallenged. One was a bill preventing deceptive police interrogation tactics for juveniles. Another doubled lawmakers' pay over the next few years. An elections reform bill has also been shelved until next year.
What comes next
In the meantime, Roberts said he was home and eager to talk to the people in his district Halifax, Whitingham, and Wilmington “about how things are going and what their concerns are for the future.”
He said he would be “talking with colleagues over the off-session and looking for ways to collaborate on issues of shared concern.”
Burke, who first ran for the House in 2008 because of her concern over climate change, has been a strong force in the transportation caucus ever since. For her, things do not change quickly enough.
“It has taken almost since 2008 for any meaningful legislation to address this issue,” Burke said.
“The passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2020 created a mandate to reduce carbon emissions, and the resulting Climate Action Plan laid out a path to do so,” she said. “The issue has risen in importance as the predictions for climate become more dire.”
She challenged Vermont “to step up in ever-greater ways to address this issue, and hopefully inspire other states and municipalities.”
“Our economy, our health, and our way of life depend on bold action,” she said. “ I look forward to the 2024 legislative session to continue work on this issue.”
In the meantime, Burke said she was “looking forward to continuing the strong investments we made over the past several years in our transportation system, and particularly in our efforts to cut carbon emissions while helping Vermonters access lower transportation options.”
These include several incentive programs to help get people into electric and fuel-efficient vehicles as well as e-bikes.
“We have invested heavily in public transit, with goals for fleet electrification,” Burke said. “And we are looking at the intersection of housing, land use, and transportation systems design to create livable, walkable communities.”
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has provided funding to support the expansion of EV charging networks in the state, Burke said.
“The bipartisan infrastructure law that was adopted in November 2021 also created the Carbon Reduction Program (CRP),” she said.
“That,” she described, “provides funds for states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.”
Cambridge Systematics, a professional organization that helps agencies to develop innovative solutions to transportation issues, “is assisting VTrans in implementing a Carbon Reduction Strategy to help us meet our ambitious emissions reduction goals and also support the requirements of the federal legislation.”