Vermont House Has Nervous Breakdown

Can’t anybody here play this game
Casey Stengel, manager of the new New York Mets (c.1962)

by Hamilton E. Davis

   The Vermont House of Representatives, which has been struggling mightily for weeks to cope with Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of their budget and tax bills for the fiscal year beginning July 1, blew up totally in a marathon session last Friday, leaving the issues of school financing, spending for the new year, and the potential shutdown of state government in such a shambles that it was nearly impossible to tell exactly what happened, let alone where the whole mess is headed in the next five days.
   Some things, however, were clear. There is no solution yet to the contest between the governor and lawmakers on using windfall money to eliminate property tax increases for residential property and second homes plus businesses in the state. Scott wants to use one-time money to buy out the increases, a pledge he made in his 2016 campaign. The House and the Senate rejected that idea in their original budget.
   The person primarily responsible for the mess was Mitzi Johnson, the Grand Isle Democrat in her first season as Speaker of the House. Johnson lost control of her chamber so completely that it is hard to see how she can recover her credibility. The Vermont House looked like a particularly unruly eighth grade class that had obtained some inappropriate refreshments.
   The grown-ups in the building over the veto session has been the Senate, although there is considerable irritation at their leader, Tim Ashe the Pro Tem, who can seem petulant when crossed. Petulant or not, however, Ashe has done a superb job of steering his chamber through all the political white water.
   On issue after issue, Ashe has delivered unanimous or nearly unanimous decisions and has pressed them skillfully. And it’s not because the Senate is full of lightweights that can be led around by the nose. Ashe has had to meld the hard left—Sens. Chris Pearson and Michael Sirotkin, moderates like Ginny Lyons and Jane Kitchell, and veteran wheelhorses like the Republicans Joe Benning and Randy Brock, and centrists like Democrats Dick Sears and Dick Mazza—into an effective political unit.
   There is no way to describe the House as an effective political unit. Consider:
   When Governor Scott held back his education tax plan back until five days before the scheduled adjournment, and indicated that he would veto anything that didn’t meet his demands it became clear that his aim was to force the Legislature to eat a very unpopular policy; and further, that he could harry them into submission by threatening to shut down government and blame the Democrats for it.
   The issue in the veto session therefore was not really about the financing issue itself, the question was could the Legislature escape with its self-respect. In the early days of the veto session, Mitzi Johnson and Tim Ashe realized that they had to stick together to survive the political weight of a very popular governor. So they agreed not to negotiate with Scott separately. The held joint press conferences and published a letter to that effect. Their basic job was to coordinate any movement from their position so as to splitting and being picked off one by one. Within days, though, the House discipline began to slip.
   Rep. Janet Ancel, chair of House Ways and Means, announced one day that the Legislature should concede the Governor’s position on the residential portion of property taxes. The cost in one-time money to buy the normal tax increase there is about $10 million. I don’t know whether Johnson knew she was going to do that, but It was clear that Ashe never saw it coming. Scott, of course, instantly said that was not nearly adequate. He also never made a counter offer.
   It was right there that the situation in the House began to go south. Ancel is one of the most experienced and credentialed player in the whole legislature, and in the normal course of the session, her foray would be perfectly normal. But in a veto session, free-lancing like that is a thoroughly bad idea.
   The reason is that you can’t have a budget unless both House and Senate approve it. Ancel had no clue whether the Senate would agree to her proposal, but it was clear that the new starting point for negotiation involved only non-residential property. Ancel had made a big concession on her own. Moreover, the fact that Scott accepted it and demanded more, with no counter offer, raised the very damaging possibility that the House would start negotiating against itself, giving up more and more while getting nothing in return.
   One of the striking thing about this mess is that, in my view, it never would have happened with truly competent political leadership. A speaker like Ralph Wright, for example, would have blown players like Phil Scott and Jason Gibbs out of the water. And you could be sure nobody would be freelancing. If Ancel made her move in a way that embarrassed Wright, she could look forward to moving from the rarefied atmosphere of Ways and Means to the Shrub Committee, the one that meets outdoors. In the current case, it’s hard to blame Ancel because there obviously no leadership coming from the Speaker.
   It only got worse from there. On Friday, well over a month after the end of the regular session, the House was entertaining new amendments like those from Cynthia Browning, a right wing Democrat, Scott Beck, a Republican. Whatever their merits, if those propositions couldn’t get any traction in the regular session, why were they wasting time on the floor at a time like this? And it wasn’t just extraneous amendments.
   The Speaker put together a 10-member ad hoc seminar with five Democrats and five House members to talk over what the House should do. That was simply bizarre: the Republicans, outnumbered two to one, were just a speed bump. The most important fact about the littler gathering was that it had nothing to do with Senate. The Speaker, meanwhile, was negotiating with the Governor on her own—without Ashe. And she thought she had herself a deal; so did Scott. Everybody was happy, happy. But they didn’t have the Senate and once that reality rained on their parade the whole thing fell apart. Following which, Kurt Wright, the Burlington Republican, blasted the Speaker on the House floor, accusing her of all sorts of treachery.
   At that point, full blown panic set in. A late sortie by Kitty Toll, the chair of House Appropriations, failed when Toll herself voted against her own amendment…
   Late in the evening, the Speaker pivoted back to the Senate bill, and got it passed on a voice vote.
   A voice vote? On the budget, the Big Bill, on a voice vote, no roll call? Yup.
   That’s where it stands today. The Vermont House, in full nervous breakdown mode, will try again to find its way out of the wilderness. The key question is whether they will grasp the essential reality that no budget can pass that has not been endorsed by both chambers.
   And they have to get it done today, if Scott is to have five full days to react to it. If passed today, Scott will be able to let it become law without his signature. That ought to focus the minds of the House Republicans, who would have to vote in favor of quick action. Will they? Who knows? Their leadership has been as much of a joke as that of the majority.
   The circus tent opens at 10 a.m. Get your seats early!

N.B. Given that the above screed is a bit scrambled, I’ll post my own takeaways from Friday’s performance in a few hours.