Storm Clouds Above the Statehouse

There is much to be said about Gov. Phil Scott suddenly pulling a voluntary paid family leave program. For instance, that he has never ever pushed this issue at all unless the Legislature is actively considering a universal program. This isn’t a principled position, it’s an artifice meant to draw votes away from the Dem/Prog caucuses.

But something else, something subtler but equally discomfiting, is on my mind at the moment.

There are signs that the House-Senate tensions of past years are flaring back up again. If so, key legislation could fail because of differences between the two chambers, real or imaginary. If that happens, they’ll be disappointing the voters who elected record numbers of Dems expecting them to get stuff done.

This tension was minimized if not eliminated in the current biennium, thanks to the efforts of House Speaker Jill Krowinski and outgoing Pro Tem Becca Balint. It’d be a shame if Balint’s departure triggers a return of the bad old days.

The usual sniping between House and Senate is most often expressed in senators’ apparently innate sense of superiority. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen senators speak of state representatives as if they’re misbehaving kids on a school bus, and treat House legislation as if it’s toilet paper stuck to their shoes.

The most prominent example of the House-Senate tension has been the twin battles over paid family leave and raising the minimum wage. The House has preferred the former, the Senate the latter. The result: No paid leave program and woefully inadequate movement on minimum wage. On two occasions the Legislature has passed watered-down versions of a paid leave program and Scott has vetoed them. The inter-chamber differences have done much to frustrate progress toward enacting a strong paid leave program over Scott’s objections.

And now, here we are again with an apparent House-Senate rift on paid family leave.

After Scott announced his program, Krowinski issued a strong statement decrying the voluntary program and labeling the issue a top priority.

But Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth told VTDigger that “he had doubts about the wisdom of pushing for a robust paid leave program in the upcoming session” The Senate is planning a push on child care, and Baruth worries that tackling two big social safety net programs in one session might constitute “overreach.”

Here’s something I’ve found to be consistently true. If legislative leaders want to get something done, they find a way to do it come hell or high water. If they don’t want to do something, they find excuses. Considering the Senate’s past antipathy to a statewide paid leave program, Baruth’s argument isn’t completely convincing.

Meanwhile, the House is the obstructionist on another issue: legalizing sports betting. The Senate has passed legalization bills more than once only to see them die in the House. Now, a joint study committee has endorsed the idea. You’d think the study committee’s report would change the calculus, but apparently not. Rep. Tom Stevens chairs the House committee that would take up a sports betting bill, and he compares legalized sports betting to bringing “casino gaming into every single Vermont home.”

And a committee chair can block just about any piece of legislation, unless they get strict orders from caucus leadership. I don’t expect House leadership to go to the mat for sports betting, not with so many contentious issues to deal with.

Sports betting isn’t a big deal for me. The added revenue would be nice, and trying to stop sports betting in the year 2022 seems like locking the barn door after a stampede. But the fact that House and Senate are divided, even after a House-Senate study committee crafted a compromise acceptable to all its members, is not a healthy sign for cooperation between the two bodies.

The Dem/Prog majorities are large enough that their biggest enemy is not Phil Scott, but themselves. Electoral success has a way of going to a politician’s head, but majority lawmakers should try to remain humble and get to the business of fulfilling their voters’ expectations on the issues they voted for and the party ran on.

Every time one chamber frustrates a priority of the other, the tensions will rise and it’ll be that much harder to get stuff done. Early signs are not promising.


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