Get Ready for Fight Club in the Statehouse

The coming biennium may be the most combative in recent memory. The best comp might be Jim Douglas’ final years in office when he had huge budget battles with the Democratic Legislature and saw his veto of marriage equality overridden.

The stage is set. Phil Scott comfortably won re-election, and can rightly claim the overwhelming support of the Vermont electorate. Legislative leaders can equally assert a mandate, given the fact that the Democratic slash Progressive caucuses are at historic highs. Legislative leadership will have a nice margin for error on veto overrides.

On top of all that, the next couple of budget cycles are going to be tough. The federal tide of Covid relief funds has made it easy to pass budgets ā€” until now. Tight budget times and both sides claiming mandates? That spells trouble by the bushelful.

The majority caucus will come to Montpelier with a lengthy wish list after years of seeing their initiatives defeated or watered down. On climate change, they’ll be looking to get Vermont on track to meet its 2025 goals and push on to 2030. Presumably the clean heat standard, which failed this year by a single vote, could be back on the table. Team Scott has made it clear they’re not in a mood to do anything more on climate, and are perfectly fine with missing the 2025 targets.

That’s just for starters. Paid family leave. Minimum wage. Universal primary care. Affordable housing. The opioid crisis. The borderline overwhelmed mental health system. Policing and justice reform. The sorry state of our prisons. K-12, workforce, and higher education. Public sector pensions. Gun safety. Act 250 reform. Instant runoff voting, anyone?

How about broadband? The effort has gotten off to a hot start thanks to federal funding, but it’s about to hit a rough patch. Interest rate hikes are hiking the cost of borrowing. Demand for materials is driving prices through the roof and forcing lengthy delays in delivery. Construction crews will be hard to come by. Will the state feel compelled to help out?

How will the new Legislature approach the governor’s beloved business incentive programs? It seems tht Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale wants to chair the Senate Economic Development Committee. She’d take a completely different approach than the incentive-lovin’ Michael Sirotkin.

The list goes on and on. Any one of these issues could spark multiple confrontations between the Legislature and the governor. And we haven’t even gotten to the budget or property taxes, where we’ve seen the biggest fights.

Nor have we addressed the governor’s penchant for vetoing a few bills a year for reasons that are only clear to him and his chief counsel.

I don’t see Scott taking a more conciliatory approach. He sees himself as the only bulwark against unrestrained progressive legislation. He’s been perfectly content with smashing the all-time record for gubernatorial vetoes. I doubt that more overrides would induce him to change course. If anything, overrides would strengthen the idea that he’s the only person holding back the tide of excessive taxation, spending, and lawmaking. Besides, if you ask him, he’ll tell you he has been cooperative. It’s the Legislature that turns its back, not him.

I’m not sure how confrontational legislative leadership are willing to be. Override votes are contentious time sinks. They force centrist lawmakers to take potentially unpopular stances. Even with historic majorities, veto overrides aren’t easy.

On the other hand, they have to feel some pressure to deliver on their historic mandate, especially after years of being thwarted by the governor. The wish list has been building for years. And if you like to think about such things, this is their chance to draw clear policy lines between them and the governor. If they’re inclined to purely political thinking ā€” and we do have a system where policymaking is an inherently political process, like it or not ā€” it would behoove them to make Scott as uncomfortable as possible. After all, the Dems would like to either defeat Scott some day or make his job so unpleasant that he decides to retire.

Nobody likes being uncomfortable. Our political leadership, for the most part, is conflict-avoidant. But the stage is set for a particularly uncomfortable, combative couple of years under the golden dome. Get your popcorn ready.

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