I Know Vermont Is the Land of Summer Camp, But All This “Kumbaya” Is Getting Ridiculous

This obligatory session-ender by VTDigger’s Xander Landen was so sticky-sweet that it should have had a warning label for diabetics. Everybody’s just getting along so well. Kind words all around, regardless of party.

Gov. Phil Scott, who has so far issued only one veto — an historic low for him — praised House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint: “It’s been a good dialogue, good discussion, very open, and they adhere to their word and everything’s been working fine.”

Balint said that she and Krowinski made progress on “establishing healthier patterns” in working with Scott, and she’s feeling “optimistic” about carrying the Kumbaya over to a 2022 session that will involve some touchy issues. Sen. Phil Baruth noted “historic” levels of tripartisan cooperation.

(There’s also a love-in involving Scott, Sen. Patrick Leahy and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. At his Tuesday presser, Scott all but endorsed Leahy for re-election in 2022, and Welch recently credited Scott with doing an “absolutely tremendous job” on Covid-19.)

Scott, Balint and Krowinski are right to feel satisfied. They avoided the intra- and inter-party battles of the past, and dealt with a number of issues successfully. And they had to do it remotely, which was tough on everyone.

But they also ducked some tough issues. Balint and Krowinski made a conscious effort to avoid sending Scott bills he was likely to veto. That might be a good short-term strategy for the pandemic session, but it’s the kind of thing that has made the Democratic majorities seem toothless throughout Scott’s governorship.

So, a good collegial session in 2021 probably won’t carry over to next year unless legislative leadership is willing to set aside a whole bunch of issues. And for strictly political reasons, that will be harder to do in an election year than in this extraordinary session.

At that Tuesday presser, Scott was asked if there’d been any disappointments in the just-ended session. He immediately cited Act 250 reform, which has failed to reach the finish line in each of the last two sessions. It’s hard to imagine a conflict-free resolution of that perpetual flashpoint.

The budget was a doddle this year, thanks to a flood of federal Covid relief. That tide is likely to recede by next year, so the budget may once again be a bone of contention between Scott and the Legislature. Scott may also return to banging the drum for meaningful cuts in school spending. Who knows, he might even unveil an actual proposal for the “Cradle to Career” notion he’s been pushing since 2016.

Nah, just kidding. He won’t.

Public sector pensions will be front and center, since leadership ducked the issue for 2021 by setting up a task force to study the issue and recommend reforms in time for the next session. That will be a stiff test of leadership skill and Dem/Prog cohesion, since any solution is likely to anger the unions.

Climate change will be on the front burner as well, no pun intended. The Climate Council, established in last year’s Global Warming Solutions Act, will also be issuing its report before year’s end. Pressure for meaningful action will be high, since the first mandatory target in the GWSA is in 2025. That’s practically tomorrow in the world of government policy.

By 2025, Vermont is supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels. That will be difficult to achieve. As VTDigger’s Katya Schwenk reported, we’ve already done the easy part by “greening” our electricity thanks to hydro power from northern Quebec. (Or should I say “greenwashing”?) Further reductions will have to involve transportation and heating. Reductions deep enough to meet the GWSA target will require some significant policy changes. So far, Scott has resisted any climate change measure that would raise costs for Vermonters — or add anything to the budget. That wasn’t a problem this year because of federal Covid funds.

Redistricting is on the docket next year, and that’s always a hackle-raiser since every lawmaker’s interests are at stake. The process could be divisive in the majority caucuses, especially in dealing with the Chittenden County Senate district. Thanks to a 2019 law, it will have to be split into at least two parts. That’ll be fun.

Health care reform will be on the agenda. Balint said last week that she is determined to seriously tackle the issue in 2022. That could be divisive within the majority caucuses, and is likely to drive a wedge between Scott and the Legislature.

It’s also possible that in an election year, Balint and Krowinski will rethink their “avoid confrontation with the governor” tactic. Will Democrats feel bound to take another crack at, for instance, paid family leave? Will they want to draw a contrast between their party and Scott, which somebody will have to do sometime if the Dems are ever to seriously challenge the governor?

Nah, just kidding. They won’t.

So yeah, we’re all singing Kumbaya for a session that saw everyone pulling together in meaningful ways. An encore will be harder to achieve.

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