Big Choice for the Vermont Legislature: Real Part of Government or Doormat

by Hamilton E. Davis

   The whole Vermont school finance-government shutdown ceased to be about substance on May 1, when Gov. Phil Scott dropped his real plan in the lap of the Legislature, and told them to adopt all of it or he would shut the government down--and blame them for it. At that point it became clear that Scott intended to achieve his policy goals not by any normal governmental process, but by turning the Legislature into a rubber stamp.
   Scott said then and has said many times both before and since that he wants to “work with” the Legislature, and that the whole matter is very easy to solve if lawmakers would just do what they obviously should do, instead of being “political.” On Tuesday of this week, Scott’s top aides reiterated the whole argument, and noted in addition that they have done nothing to prepare for a shutdown. No need to, they said in effect, since it would be so simple for the Legislature to give them what they want.
   The fertilizer content of that whole proposition approaches 100 percent. Consider: on January 18, Suzanne Young, Scott’s Secretary of Administration, sent a memo to the Legislative leadership laying out 18 suggestions that lawmakers might consider and pledging to cooperate in that process. The memo was not accompanied by any draft legislation, a normal component of government process, and none was forthcoming over the following three and a half months while the Legislature was crafting the General Fund budget and the tax machinery to pay for it. During that time, a steady stream of grumbling emanated from the key legislative committees, particularly House Ways and Means, led by Rep. Janet Ancel; and House Appropriations, led by Rep. Kitty Toll. Both committees complained that they had trouble getting necessary data from the administration; they also fretted over the fact that they were not seeing a proposed “plan” or legislative language from Scott’s minions.
   Then, on May 1, with one week left to go before the scheduled adjournment date and work on the major bills virtually complete, Scott sent the Legislature his demands on the school tax issue and let it be known that he would veto a budget that didn’t include his plan. One week.
   That’s it, right there, the reason for the above conclusions. Nothing like that has ever happened in Vermont before. All Vermont governors maneuver as best they can to achieve their goals, but none has ever threatened to shut down the government to get their way. Moreover, it was the second time he was using that kind of caper. He got his way last year the same way. And while the public is unlikely to understand it, if Scott succeeds again he will turn the Legislature into a governmental joke.
   It is certainly possible that the Scott strategy could be employed in the service of truly superior public policy, but that is not what is happening here.
   The content of the school financing issue is important and has been vetted at length in the press, and in this space. The Scott plan and the budget passed at adjournment are both plausible, but the Legislature’s effort to avoid using one-time money is clearly superior to Scott’s.
   The evidence for that conclusion can be seen in years of Republican advocacy, which explains why the Republicans voted for it in large numbers. An exceptionally clear statement of that position can be seen in the recent commentary in VtDigger by John McClaughry, an industrial strength Republican policy analyst.
   The conclusion I draw from this is that Scott’s strategy to reach his policy goals is far more important than the content of the goals themselves. The Legislature has already agreed, in effect, to give Scott half of what he has demanded—flat taxes for Vermont homeowners. The value of the second half of the loaf—flat taxes for second home owners and businesses—runs to a few million dollars in a General Fund budget of roughly $1.5 billion. So the money is not a big issue, at least nowhere near important enough to shut down the government. 
   What is a big issue is the fact that Scott is using damaging methods to force compliance with a clearly unpopular policy. That kind of scorched earth, partisan tactic has been a cardinal feature of the collapse of American politics into a toxic miasma that hangs over the whole country. Scott is bringing it here.

The Question Now: Will the Legislature Hold or Fold?

   Impossible to tell. The Legislature will meet tomorrow to attempt an override for the latest iteration of the budget. An override is unlikely, but not impossible. Republicans have rallied behind Scott in the post season, but some could begin to remember that they voted for the regular session budget, and that, as members of the Legislature, they also have a stake in avoiding emasculation.
   A personal observation: a friend with long experience went to southern New England a couple of weeks ago and found his Vermont ex-pat pals atwitter about the possibility of a government shut down. “Won’t happen,” he assured them. He came back three days later, and changed his mind. “I don’t see how they avoid shutdown,” he said.
   One reason I think his insights are so compelling is that they match mine. I’ve gone back and forth three or four times between 40/60 shutdown and 60/40 no shutdown. The market value of this kind of speculation runs perilously close to zero.
   There are some certainties, however. One is that the whole Legislature, and particularly the House and Senate leadership, understand exactly what is happening. If you push their interview buttons, they can lay out an hour of reasons, basically all valid, about how they are being mistreated by Scott. In recent days, Tim Ashe, the Chittenden Democrat/Progressive who runs the Senate as Pro Tem, did just that in interviews on Channel Five T.V.  I talked with the Speaker, Mitzi Johnson, a few days ago. “Scott is treating us like his staff,” she said, before launching into a recitation of the Scott behavior over the last five months.
   Understanding what is happening to you, however, is far from doing something about it. And there the whole issue starts getting squishy. The fact is that the squishy syndrome is hard at work in the current environment. In both chambers, there are legislators who just can’t imagine a shutdown. Will the state parks be open on the Fourth of July? How will people get paid? “It’s our responsibility.”
   It is easy for outsiders, including your correspondent, to say that it’s just as much Scott’s responsibility, which is true, but that doesn’t make it easier. On the basis of what he says, Scott is willing to be irresponsible; but some will see a firm stand as matching irresponsibility to irresponsibility.

   A couple of final thoughts:

   Some of the very knowledgeable and experienced people I have talked to don’t think that Scott would shut down the government. That, in other words, he would accept the best deal he can get. I suspect that is true, but we will only find out if the Legislature holds…
   A second supposition is that the political consequences of this decisions are more complex than normal. I’ll comment more on this issue if it is still relevant after tomorrow. For now, I would just point out how asymmetrical the political landscape is. Scott is lined up against the Democrats as a body, but he doesn’t have a serious Democratic opponent in November. At the same time, while he may be able politically to hang a “Kick Me” sign on legislative Democrats, they only run locally. Who, I wonder, are the lucky Republicans who get to run against Tim Ashe in Chittenden, Kitty Toll in Danville, Janet Ancel in Plainfield…to ask the question is to answer it.
   So, uncertainty prevails. Twelve days left to the dawn of Fiscal Year 2019. Those 12 days are critical for Vermont, for the immediate future, and for the long-term future, to an extent we have never dealt with before.