The smell of spring is in the air — and with it, the smell of compromise in the Statehouse. Or is that just body odor from too many hours in cramped committee rooms?
Either way, legislators are ready to skedaddle out of Montpelier — perhaps as soon as May 11 — and Gov. Peter Shumlin will be happy to show them the door.
“I think we’re getting to that time of the legislative session where we need to start seeing some movement toward the finish line,” says Shumlin’s secretary of administration, Jeb Spaulding.
To that end, Spaulding on Monday sought to break the ice jam building up around must-pass budget and tax bills by delivering a compromise of sorts to the senators charged with finalizing them.
Team Shumlin’s counter-offer comes after the House eviscerated several of his top priorities last month and before the Senate votes on its own taxing and spending plans in the coming weeks.
The administration’s primary goal, Spaulding says, is to undo the $27 million in new “broad-based” taxes the House approved for next year and the $47 million it approved for the year after. Those would raise prices on candy, cigarettes and meals and hike income taxes on Vermont’s highest earners — all of which are anathema to the gov.
“The big picture is, one, there’s a way to do this without raising all those taxes,” Spaulding says. “And, two, I think we wanted to demonstrate there was some room for compromise on our big proposals — and hopefully that will be reciprocated on.”
So what’s in Shummy’s grand new plan?
No longer is he calling for a $17 million cut to the popular Earned Income Tax Credit in order to fund $17 million in expanded childcare subsidies. Now just $12 million will do.
And no longer will he try to raise $17 million by taxing break-open tickets sold in social clubs — a figure initially mocked by legislators and disputed by their economists. Instead, Shumlin’s proposing a lower tax rate on the tickets that would raise just $6 million, all of which would go toward low-income heating assistance.
Shumlin further argues against raising $9 million in new taxes simply to put that money in reserves, as the House plan would do. And he wants to retain a $15 million tax on businesses that don’t provide health insurance to their employees, even though the House tried to jettison it.
He’s even got a new revenue proposal: to increase the tax big banks pay on every dollar deposited with them. That would hit five Vermont banks and raise $2.4 million.
How’s Shumlin 2.0 playing in the Senate?
“It’s a positive sign that the administration is continuing to be engaged and contemplating putting the markers in different places than when we started in January,” says Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Translation: Shumlin’s finally listening to the legislature.
Ashe says his committee is “very open to considering” Shumlin’s bank franchise tax proposal and says the panel is “intrigued by the idea of bringing the [break-open ticket] industry under greater regulation.”
But Ashe remains highly skeptical of Shumlin’s plan to fund childcare subsidies by cutting a portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“The problem so far is there has not been a compelling case made that the way we should fund these new initiatives is by lowering the income of working people who receive the [EITC],” Ashe says. “That should not be the first place to turn to fund any new initiative.”
Now we know why Shumlin wanted anyone but Ashe in the finance chair.
Senate Finance isn’t the only committee throwing cold water on Shumlin’s budget priorities. While the governor continues to advocate for new time limits on the state’s Reach Up welfare program, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week rejected the plan.
“We’re not sure about the data, who would be cut out and when they would be cut out,” says Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), who chairs the committee. “We want to make sure we have the facts before we take people out of the program.”
Spaulding says he’s “not totally surprised” by the committee’s decision but remains confident that Shumlin’s proposed Reach Up time limits have support among the body as a whole.
“With 30 senators overall, I think there’s considerable support for going the direction the governor is going,” he says.
So what if spring fever doesn’t inspire the legislature to find common ground with the governor?
Shumlin himself is always careful to avoid issuing veto threats, but Spaulding warns about testing his resolve.
“I think people should not underestimate the determination and the seriousness he has on both the budgetary and the revenue side. This is not just a casual or lightly held opinion,” Spaulding says.
Indeed. Who can forget the gov’s dramatic threat earlier this session to jump from the highest building around “to make sure I wasn’t here to see that tax package become law?”
Spaulding continues, “He’s strenuously opposed to raising broad-based taxes. There’s no away around it. He feels very strongly. I don’t know what will come out of it. We hope to avoid that situation.”
Not exactly words of compromise, but will any of the rhetoric scare the Senate into going along with the gov?
We’ll know by May 11.
One of the greatest remaining mysteries in the dwindling legislative session is just what’ll become of “death with dignity.” Or “physician-assisted suicide.” Or “patient choices at the end of life.” Or whatever you want to call it.
As first introduced, the polyonymous bill sought to establish a comprehensive process for terminally ill patients to obtain life-ending medication.
But a last-minute amendment by Sens. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) and Bob Hartwell (D-Bennington) radically rewrote the bill to simply indemnify doctors and family members who take part in the process. It passed after Lt. Gov. Phil Scott broke a 15-15 tie.
The bill’s longtime supporters reviled the change — but several joined its opponents to send the stripped-down version to the House. They figured the lower chamber could patch it up and send it back for another vote.
Sure enough, the House committees currently considering it seem inclined to adopt the original, comprehensive approach — as does House leadership.
“Based on the initial review that I’ve had of that bill, I think there are real reasons to be concerned,” House Speaker Shap Smith says of the Senate version.
But here’s the thing: Even if the House restores the original language, the Senate will have to approve such a change. If it doesn’t, the bill either dies or gets sent to conference committee, where the two divergent bodies would have to haggle out a compromise.
Ayer, who authored the bill and fought for its passage, says her side now has enough votes in the Senate to pass the original bill — though she won’t say which of her colleagues flipped.
“I am not going to comment on that, but I’m quite sure we have at least 16 votes,” she says.
The likeliest flip-floppers might be Galbraith and Hartwell, who seemed genuinely conflicted about the issue and were the last two senators to pick a side. But neither sounds like he’s ready to take the leap.
“It’s possible something could come up that I could support, but it won’t be the original bill,” Hartwell says. “What I don’t want is a long, convoluted bill that looks like a big government takeover of the process.”
For his part, Galbraith says, “Of course there’s a middle ground, but the proponents have a certain all-or-nothing approach.” He argues that his amendment actually found that middle ground.
And, like Hartwell, the Windham County senator says he wants to vote for something simple.
“The same people who want to have all this bureaucratic procedure for the end of life, which I think should be between doctor and patient, they would never apply it to a woman and a doctor in a case of how to deal with a pregnancy,” Galbraith says.
A month after Vermont Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson resigned his post, the party on Saturday unanimously elected Dottie Deans of North Pomfret as its next leader.
A former schoolteacher and HIV/AIDs activist, Deans served as the party’s vice chair for the past two years. She says she’s “happy with the party as it is now” but nevertheless plans to reach out to towns and counties where the Dems have less of a presence.
“We have to keep vigilant,” she says. “Change is always happening. It’s my hope to sustain our party, keep it strong, engage more people.”
Deans inherits an organization with four full-time staffers and a part-time compliance consultant — several of whom have become a constant presence in the Statehouse this year. A fifth employee, finance director Fauna Shaw, stepped down from her job last month. Deans says the party hasn’t yet decided whether to replace her.
During Perkinson’s tenure, the Burlington lawyer tasked the party with playing a major role in the Queen City’s mayoral and city council elections. Now that a Windsor County resident is in charge, will the Dems pull back from local races in Chittenden County?
“It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis. We’re going to see where we’re needed, and we’re going to be present everywhere,” Deans says. “I can’t predict the future.”
The party had a tougher time electing a vice chair on Saturday. By a 20-18 vote, the Dems picked Brattleboro resident James Valente over Burlington’s David Scherr.
Scherr, who serves as chairman of the Burlington Democratic Party, framed the contest as “amicable,” noting that the two have plenty in common. “We’re both relatively young lawyers interested in serving the party,” he says.
Valente, who chairs both the Brattleboro and Windham County arms of the party, agrees, saying, “Generally our message was the same: to be Dottie’s right-hand man.”
Deans and Valente, who are serving out their predecessors’ terms, will be up for reelection again in November.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.