Sure Is Quiet Out There

A strange hush has fallen over the #vtpoli landscape. The Legislature is set to adjourn at the end of the week, and yet we hear no arguing, no complaining, no House/Senate or even Legislature/Governor sniping, no last-minute knifings of inconvenient bills. The governor hasn’t vetoed anything yet, and he’s barely made any veto threats.

This is looking like the quietest, least contentious session in years. Now, maybe this is a consequence of The Year Of Zoom, with reporters unable to lurk outside closed doors and buttonhole people in the hallways and trade rumors with lobbyists. But when you look at the available record, there’s no evidence of the usual endgame drama.

I mean, just look at VTDigger’s Bill Tracker. It shows no gubernatorial vetoes, five bills signed by Gov. Scott, four bills awaiting his action, 11 passed the House and Senate with differences being resolved*, and seven that have passed one chamber and not the other. The Bill Tracker is not comprehensive, but it is a thoughtful compilation of high-profile issues before the Legislature. And it shows a pretty decent record of accomplishment with few apparent flashpoints.

*Most differences are fairly minor, and agreement this week seems certain.

This is all the more notable because w’er in the first session of a biennium. Any bill that doesn’t clear the Legislature this year can be picked up next year where it was left off. This is a simple, inarguable excuse that’s frequently deployed when time and tempers run short. Not this year, at least not so far.

Back in January, this session looked to be incredibly difficult. We were still in the middle of the pandemic with all its social and economic effects. At first, a budget crisis appeared inevitable, but federal Covid aid has allowed our leaders to be generous with spending. There’s been no talk of belt-tightening or the legendary family around the kitchen table.

That’s certainly eased the pressure. But on issue after issue, the usual discord and carping and delays just haven’t happened. Ten days ago, I postulated that legislative leaders seemed to be doing an exceptional job keeping things on track. That still seems to be the case.

Now for some semi-informed speculation. The bills most likely to stop short of the finish line are the seven that have passed one chamber and not the other; they have the longest distance to travel. I see only two that have sparked real disagreement between House and Senate:

  • H.175, the bottle bill expansion, passed the House on April 16 and has been in the Senate Rules Committee since. It’s a stretch to see it re-emerge, clear Senate committees and get to a floor vote unless the session extends past this week. Maybe next year.
  • S.10, a bill to extend unemployment insurance due to the pandemic. This is a most-pass, obviously. The Senate’s addition of $50 per week to benefits was rejected by the House Commerce Committee. But that panel did approve a version of the bill with a $25 per week bump in bennies. If that can’t be worked out, well, we got problems.

There are a few bills that passed both chambers in different forms, but time constraints might put off final resolution until January. Most of those can wait. One of them, the constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights, will definitely pass in time to be on the ballot in 2022.

One bill that passed each chamber in wildly different form was S.53, passed in the Senate as a straightforward exemption of menstrual products from state sales tax. The House folded in a bunch of other tax provisions, including a new tax on cloud-based software and a targeted corporate tax break. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint called the House bill “a tax Christmas tree adorned with many baubles.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this bill gets put off until January. Which would be a shame for the very simple original concept of the bill.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any deal-breaking House-Senate differences on any of the other bills on that list. There’s overwhelming momentum to pass many of them, including the “bupe bill,” creation of a pension reform board, the child care bill, the apology for Vermont’s eugenics program, and an election-reform bill that creates a process for curing defective ballots.

As for gubernatorial vetoes, we’ve barely seen a whisper. The governor sent out a warning flag about H.145, the police use of force bill, but he signed it the very next day. Otherwise, there’s always the chance for a budget veto; he’s done that three times in four years. Any other vetoes would be a surprise, and that would be exceptional for a governor who has averaged almost five vetoes a year.

Of course, it’s not over until the gavel comes down and leaders do their hallway press conferences. But right now, it’s hard to see any real conflict on the horizon. That would be a remarkable end to what’s been a remarkably drama-free session.

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