By EMERSON LYNN
Gov. Phil Scott is expected to veto the key money bills the legislature passed late Saturday night as it closed the 2018 biennium. It’s expected the governor will call a special session, the single purpose being to hold firm to his pledge to oppose any legislation that would raise taxes or fees.
The session would differ from last year’s veto session, in which the legislature can only address legislation that was vetoed. In a special session, legislators can bring up any bill, and the legislation can be passed by a majority vote.
It’s the expanded nature of the session that puts both sides on edge, and one that gives both Republicans and Democrats the incentive to score the political wins that could extend through the November general election.
The governor’s message is the simpler of the two. He’s opposed to signing any legislation that raises the property tax and he can show voters how the tax could be avoided. He’s also better at the messaging game than the Democrats.
The question is how far he is willing to push, and at what cost. In last year’s veto session, Mr. Scott made it clear he would not be the governor who brought the state to a halt by refusing to keep state government running. He ended up compromising with the Democrats over a statewide health care contract with Vermont’s teachers.
This year’s budget passed with overwhelming bipartisan support; and, overall, it was a moderately responsible bill.
The crux issue is the use of $58 million in one-time funds to keep property tax raises flat. The governor wants no increase in the property tax; the Democrats make the argument that such a move is fiscally imprudent. The same move was made last year and the deficit was again in play this year. If one-time money is used this year, the deficit will be even larger next year.
Sen. Ann Cummings (D) argued if taxpayers feel no pain, then they will keep spending more. Democrats say it would be more fiscally responsible to use the one-time money to buy down the teachers’ pension fund.
They’re right if the point is confined to how that $58 million is used. They are not if the future of education spending – writ large – is ignored.
The battle is over what happens next as Vermont struggles to right-size its educational ship. Mr. Scott wants to rip the Band-Aid off and do what’s necessary to reduce costs and to reduce them dramatically. He believes remedies exist and he’s using all the political muscle he can to make his case.
He’s been successful in several respects; the Democrats have joined in recognizing they can’t be tone deaf to the need, and they have moved on the statewide health care contract for teachers and on the need to reexamine how special education is delivered and paid for.
They have been less inclined to join the governor on the need to reduce pupil-to-staff ratios.
Scott will continue his push, and Democrats will need to exercise caution in pushing him too far, too fast. But the governor is also at the end of his political rope in proposing to use one-time money to essentially buy down property tax rates. It’s worked once, and it may work a second time. After that, the political magic will have evaporated. It will be seen more as an inability to plan and less an effort in fiscal prudence.
The public should ask for a five-year plan and no longer be content lurching from one fiscal year to the next, particularly over a budget item that costs over $1.7 billion each year.
It’s impossible to know what a special session of the legislature might include. What we do know is that Vermonters are looking for less partisanship and more long-term vision.