The Veto Session

The Veto Session

Three bills passed by both the House and Senate were vetoed by the governor.

  • Marijuana Legalization (S.22)
  • The Budget Bill (H.518)
  • The Yield Bill (H.509)

On June 21st the Legislature met to consider these vetoes. We started at 10:00 PM


According the the Vermont State Constitution, if the governor vetoes a bill the legislature must vote to determine if that veto stands. Anticipating the governor's veto of at least two bills, we adjourned a month ago with the caveat that we would, most likely, be back on June 21st to consider any vetoes. The balance of power within the House and Senate is such that the likelihood of overriding any veto is slim. Two-thirds of the members present in each house must approve the override. In the House 53 of the 150 members are Republicans. In the Senate there are only 7 Republicans out of 30 members, but to really override a veto there must be a vote in both bodies.  For about the last month up until the day before the veto session, the House and Senate leadership were negotiating with the governor's office to determine a path forward.


The Budget and Yield Bills

The governor believed that if teacher school employee contracts were negotiated along certain criteria, school districts, over all, could save $26 million. His idea was to move teacher negotiations to the state level and thereby insure those criteria were met and the money saved (allegedly 'returned to the tax payers'). The Yield Bill, as approved by the House and Senate, figured a way to find those savings without moving negotiations to the state level. This was called The Ashe Amendment which I reluctantly voted for. The governor vetoed both bills anyway, with the justification that he didn't believe the $26 million would be saved by what we had approved.


Generally it takes a while for a bill to work its way through the legislative process. There are 24-hour wait periods between the readings and usually it goes to a committee etc. etc. But the goal during this special session was to get things done fast. Leadership of both bodies and the governor had worked out a compromise that would most likely pass. Now we had to get it done. To do that the House suspends rules temporarily. This takes a 3/4 vote of the members present. When everyone is essentially in agreement with what has to be done, the Speaker asks the minority leader to move to suspend the rules. He does so and a voice vote get's it done. So the Speaker says "I would ask the Representative from Milton to move to suspend rules so that we can pull H.509 from the calendar for immediate action." He then makes the motions etc.


At about 10:20 we pulled the Yield Bill (H.509) off the calendar for the required override vote. The "H" in front of the number means the bill originated in the House. The Vermont Constitution stipulates that for vetoed bills the body that originated the bill is first to vote on the override, and that vote must be a roll-call vote. That's what we did. I voted "yes" to override, and it failed the two-thirds required. The vote was 83 yes and 56 no. 93 yes votes were needed. This result was expected.


At about 10:45 we conducted a similar suspension and vote for the Budget Bill. Again I voted, "yes" and again the override failed. This time it was 84 to 55. At about 11:00 we recessed.


The Compromise

The next order of business was to explain the compromise. For this, there was a 'caucus of the whole,' which means that everyone could/would be there for the informal explanation held in the House chamber.  A woman from Legislative Council led the explanation.


The veto of the Budget Bill meant that the State would have no way to pay bills. As a result, power to the Capitol was cut and the lights went out. In fact, this was a humorous coincidence. For about 45 minutes we had no lights, though a temporary sound system was quickly brought in. A tree limb had fallen and severed a power line somewhere.


The original Budget Bill contained no language regarding teacher negotiations. The Yield Bill contained the Ashe Amendment. The Yield Bill is usually about a page long, just giving values to the numbers used to calculate the state-wide base property tax rate. The Ashe Amendment was maybe a page and a half long. The decision had been made to combine the Yield Bill with a new Budget Bill (H.542) and move that as quickly as possible through the House and Senate. In order to do that most of us wanted to understand what the compromise really contained. Hence the explanation to the caucus of the whole.


The compromise was very similar to the Ashe Amendment. Here's the text of the amendment that adds the compromise to the new budget bill. Here's what it does:

  • Sets the Statewide Property Tax rate. To really understand this you have to understand Vermont's rather complicated method of funding public education. Suffice it to say that local school districts vote on budgets. The total from all the budgets is summed up by the State. That's how much the state has to collect in property taxes. There are a couple: 
    • Homestead Property Tax. This is a tax rate for homeowners. The compromise left this the same as the original budget, which was a reduction from the previous year.
    • Non-Homestead Property Tax. This the rate charged to businesses, second homes etc. The compromise reduced this a little. This amendment set that statewide rate slightly less than what is really needed to fulfill all the budgets. This, of course, means the state will not collect enough money to bay back to all the districts the amount they need in according to their budgets. This reduction in property taxes would result in an $8 million hole in the Education Fund.
  • Fills part of the $8 million hole for FY19 and beyond. The portion of the state Sales Tax that goes to the Education Fund is increased from 35% to 36%. 
  • Tells Districts how they can save enough through teacher negotiations to fill that hole for FY18. If districts negotiate a 80/20 split for health care premiums, with the district paying 80% and the employee paying 20%, a total of about $75 million can be saved. If the districts use about $49 million to reduce employee out-of-pocket health care expenses to about the level they are now, the savings will be about $26 million. Because the new plans take effect half way through the fiscal year, the savings will be about $13 million. More than enough to make up for that $8 million.
  • Provides a mechanism for determining how much of a reduction in returned Education Funds there will be for each district in FY18 and FY19. That reduction will be the difference between:
    • The district's actual FY17 health care spending (let's say $3.4 million for an average district).
    • And the projected FY18 health care spending that would occur if the district negotiated according to the state's criteria. (let's say $1.7 for the first half of FY18 which is before the new health care plans kick in, and $1.4 million for the second half of FY18 when the savings might actually take place. That $1.4 million is the result of the state looking at each district and what plans (individual, two-person, family) each person, most likely, will select. The state can then figure what the total premiums will be.) To provide some wiggle-room the state adds 5% of this calculation. Five percent of  $1.4 million is $70,000. So the total projected FY18  savings will be $1.7 million plus $1.4 million plus $70,000, for a total of $3.17 million.

    • The reduction therefore is $3.4 million minus $3.17 million or $230,000.
  • The state doesn't hold back the full amount ($230k for our hypothetical district). Because some health care contracts have already been negotiated and because school districts may not be able to negotiate the terms the state assumes, the school district will have to find savings somewhere else. To give the districts a bit of a break the state will reduce the reduction by 35% for the first year, and 65% the second year. Our hypothetical district will have to reduce spending by $149,500 (65% of 230,000) in FY18 and $80,500 in FY19 (35% of 230,000).
  • One of the reasons the governor gave for needing to have all this done this year is that all school districts in Vermont are required to negotiate health care benefits this year due to changes in made by the health insure provider (VEHI). This was called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The compromise makes this a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity by requiring all newly negotiated contracts to expire between July and September of 2019.
  • The compromise also established a Commission to look into moving school employee health care negotiations to the state level. The commission will report its findings on or before November 15th of 2017.
  • And finally it dealt with the problem of districts that are at impasse  during current negotiations. When negotiators declare impasse the next step is to hire a mediator to resolve the conflicts. Usually it takes both sides to end impasse and go back to formal negotiations. The compromise bill allowed one side to end impasse and restart negotiations.

All this was explained and discussed during the caucus of the whole.


At 2:30 PM we reconvened, suspended rules and ok'd the second reading of the compromise bill. We then recessed to individual party caucuses to continue discussing the bill. My sense is that most people understood the bill, but it took some explaining. And there were some that really were not getting the big picture and the possible impact on their school districts.


During the caucus we learned that there would be at least three amendments to the bill. This complicated things as it meant more votes, a possible return of the bill to the Senate, and possible veto by the governor if he didn't like the changes. But the amendments didn't look like they would pass, so it really began to seem that this might be a one-day veto session.


We gavelled in next at 4:50. The amendments failed. And by 5:35 we were prepared to take up the compromise bill. At this point the pace suddenly picked up, There must have been some sort of agreement between the leadership of the various political parties not to call for roll-call votes because we very quickly suspended rules, approved the bill for third reading, approved the third reading, and messaged the bill to the Senate. We than suspended rules to approve a half-dozen resolutions all at once. At 6:40 we were waiting for the Senate to do its part of the process.


Marijuana

While we waited, the Senate sent us back H.511. The stated subject of this bill was "Motor vehicles; driving under the influence; open container; learner’s permits; seatbelts; incident clearance; liability." It originated from the House Transportation Committee chaired by Pat Brennan, a Republican Colchester Representative. It's a bit messy figuring out what happened to this bill, but back in March the House approved it and sent it to the Senate. The bill tightens restrictions and penalties on the use of marijuana in vehicle. From what I understand, the Senate proposed and approved an amendment that wiped out the whole bill and substituted language that would have legalized the possession of marijuana in small quantities and allow for people to grow 6 plants. The understanding was that the governor had approved the change. This was particularly ironic as Pat Brennan consistently votes again the legalization of marijuana in any form.


The House would only need a majority vote to approve the new Senate version of this Transportation bill and legalize marijuana. However, in order to consider the bill we would have to suspend rules and that takes a three-quarters vote. The House Minority Leader made it clear he would not suspend rules, so the vote to suspend failed (78 to 63) and the bill was not considered. I voted "No" because of the weird process and what it did to Representative Brennan's bill.


At 6:55 we 'stood in recess' until the 'fall of the gavel.' We continued waiting on the Senate.


Climate Change

But we were soon back in action to take up H.R.15 a resolution having to do with climate change. The stated purpose of the resolution is to "strongly opposing the announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and recognizing Governor Philip Scott’s enrolling Vermont in the U.S. Climate Alliance." There are a number of members that do not believe in the science of climate change, and they wanted to make that known. They tried to have the resolution sent to a committee, they wanted fiscal notes (meaning they wanted the Joint Fiscal Office to report on how much some portion of the resolution would cost), and the they wanted to make speeches. This, of course, prompted others to make speeches in favor the resolution. I began to think we would be there until midnight arguing climate change.


At 7:30 a roll-call vote was called on the resolution. It passed 105 to 31 with me voting "Yes."


At 7:45 came the resolution to adjourn, which was heartily agreed to by voice vote. We were done for the year. However, the resolution to adjourn (J.R.S.35) reads as follows:

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives 

That when the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives adjourn their respective houses on the twenty-first or twenty-second day of June, 2017 they shall do so to reconvene on the twenty-third day of October, 2017, at ten o’clock in the forenoon on the joint call of the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, or on the third day of January, 2018, at ten o’clock in the forenoon, if not so jointly called.

We may be back in October. 

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