Takeaways from the Disaster

by Hamilton E. Davis

Following are a series of only moderately ill-tempered conclusions I have drawn from the nervous breakdown suffered by the Vermont House on Friday. I sketched that process in my last post. Herewith my effort to see where we stand now:

  • All the issue blatheration that ruined a perfectly nice day Friday is dead. What the Senate is willing to do is to give Scott his tax-free request for Vermont homeowners in 2019, plus a little, say $4 million or so, off the non-residential and business category of property tax for the coming year. In financial terms, that would look like this: Scott wanted to use $40 million in one-time money to buy out both residential and non-residential tax increases. What he can have is $10 million for residential, plus the roughly $4 million or a little over for a total of $14 million. The $26 milllion he can forget about. He might have been able to plead for a little more, but that prospect went glimmering when he waited until five days before adjournment to drop his plan on the Legislature. You don’t try a bush-league stunt like that without paying something for it.
  • The Speaker, Mitzi Johnson, needs to get a grip in a big hurry because she has made the House a public embarrassment. She put herself in thrall to House Republicans at a time when Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one. Holding an ad hoc caucus with her inner circle and the Republican leadership wasn’t a mistake so much as it was simply bizarre. And trying to freelance her own agreement with Scott with no buy-in from the Senate was sheer incompetence. On the override effort, she couldn’t swing a single Republican; she couldn’t even get all her own votes into the building. Pathetic.
  • What about the House Republicans? They’ve been pretty full of themselves, but their performance really can’t be taken seriously. They voted for the very solid first budget that Scott vetoed, then supported Scott unanimously on the override, thereby propping up the bogus shutdown panic. One of their stalwarts didn’t get the Scott message: he told the press that Republicans knew their position wasn’t about principle or policy, but rather was an effort to get some “juice” in the chamber where they are outnumbered. The juice comment will fit nicely into a political ad. As for Kurt Wright screaming at the beleaguered Mitzi after their little fantasy deal fell apart…Wright has been in government since the Pleistocene—didn’t he wonder why he was getting all that stroking with no Senator in sight?
  • And Scott—didn’t he wonder the same thing? During his little private session with Mitzi, might he have inquired whether Ashe and the Senate were on board? The House members who were not involved in the process and who spent a long miserable day just sitting around, were reduced to wondering whether Mitzi and the Governor had shaken hands.
  • More Scott: the Governor is going to have accept the bill that contains the $14 million/$26 million split with himself on the short end. He is going to have fold, in other words, or he’s going to have to shut down the government. Which I don’t believe will happen. Scott has been bluffing right along. A couple of weeks ago, Susanne Young, Scott’s Secretary of Administration, in a meeting with three House committees, said that the Administration had done nothing all to prepare for a shutdown. That was a hint. Scott and Gibbs are perfectly capable of mounting a political campaign with a lot of misdirection to win some political battle; Gibbs is a specialist at it. But shutting down with no preparation would be hugely irresponsible, and I don’t believe either Scott or Gibbs would do it. The whole bluff idea snapped into focus more recently when agency heads in the Scott Administration assured their employees there would be no shutdown. The Scotties couldn’t say that if that if they didn’t know their boss would accept the best deal he could get.
  • In the short term, there is a pretty clear path to a solution. The House has to pass the Senate bill; if they want to mess with it they will have to have a conference with that body. Then they have to get the agreed-upon bill to Scott today, if they want to give him the full five days to decide what to do with it. The Republicans ought to press for that, since Scott could then let it become law without his signature, a minor conceit that the Governor might like for his reelection posture. Could the whole mess still blow up again? To ask that question is to answer it.
  • The long-term fallout from the current craziness is problematic at best. If my analysis about Scott taking the best deal he can get is wrong, and he vetoes the state into a shutdown, then I think state government could sink into a dark age of rage and recrimination that would make Montpelier resemble President Trump’s Washington. I also think it would presage the end of Scott’s political career. Even without such an outcome, there will be significant angst in the normal process of government. There are a whole range of pressing issues, from school financing to the environment to the underlying performance of the Vermont economy, that can only be worked out by the Administration and the Legislature working in some kind of harmony. That will require a change in style for the Scott Administration. Scott and Gibbs will have to give up Manipulation 101 and accept the reality that they have to use persuasion to accomplish their agenda. And within the Legislature itself, there will be very significant tensions between the House and the Senate. Right now, the House is rudderless and the Senate united, a formula for dysfunction. I can’t even imagine how all that will play out.