Ask Bob: The Scoop On Special Sessions In Vermont

May 22, 2018

Lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott will meet again at the Statehouse Wednesday morning for a special session of the Vermont Legislature. 

The occasion got us thinking about the history of special sessions in Vermont, and for answers we turn to VPR reporter Bob Kinzel in this latest installment of Ask Bob.

A little special session history

The issue of a special session was first addressed in Vermont's original Constitution back in 1777 — that's when Vermont was an independent republic and not yet a state (that happened in 1791).

The Constitution gives the governor the power "to call together the General Assembly, when necessary."

So it's pretty open-ended and only a governor can call a special session of the Legislature.

How many special sessions have there been?

In the history of Vermont, there have been 25 special sessions. They generally fall into several categories:

  1. For fiscal reasons, like the budget deficit (this year would fall into that category)
  2. To respond to federal legislation
  3. Events dealing with war
  4. Natural disasters

Special sessions called for fiscal reasons

There were five special sessions between 1975 and 2009 that were called specifically for financial reasons.

One example: Gov. Richard Snelling was a fiscal conservative, but he also strongly believed in a sustainable state budget, and he argued that Vermonters who relied on state services would be much better off with a consistent benefit package.

In the 1983 special session, Snelling had to convince the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate that it was appropriate to raise taxes and not slash the budget. And he said afterward that he was very proud that lawmakers followed his advice.

Special sessions to respond to federal legislation

In 1865 a special session was called to ratify the 13th Amendment to the federal Constitution abolishing slavery.

And then in the 1930s, there were special sessions held for four years in a row — 1933, '34, '35 and '36 — to enable the state of Vermont to participate in the new programs that were part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Those package of programs greatly expanded the role of the federal government, so Vermont needed to give its approval in order to take part in programs like the huge public works initiative.

There was a very high unemployment rate at that time, and Vermont gave its approval to participate in those programs.

Special sessions called to respond to instances of war

A notable example was in the winter of 1861 when Vermont and Gov. Erastus Fairbanks responded to President Lincoln's call for troops at the outset of the Civil War.

In a telegram to the president, Fairbanks is said to have written "Vermont will do its full duty" and the state responded with thousands of volunteers for the Army — one of the highest per capita rates of any state in the union.

Then in 1941, a special session was called to consider financial problems at the University of Vermont. During that session, which was held in mid-September, lawmakers also declared the existence of "a state of armed conflict" with Germany.

This was done to trigger pay increases for Vermonters who were serving in the military, and so Vermont acknowledged a state of war in Europe three months before this country formally entered World War II (after Pearl Harbor.)

Special sessions called to deal with disaster

In 1857, the very first special session ever called in Vermont dealt with a disaster.

What happened? The Statehouse burned down.

Since there was no Statehouse, the Senate met at the Washington County Courthouse while the House met at the Congregational Church in town. They needed to make plans for a new Statehouse in Montpelier.

A special session was also called in November 1927 after big floods hit the state, which washed away homes, roads and bridges throughout Vermont. During this disaster Lt. Gov. S. Hollister Jackson of Barre City lost his life when he was swept down a bulging river in an effort to get home.

A lot of the bridges that were built following that 1927 flood still stand today, though as its been nearly a century, that's why many of them are in need of serious repair.

The special session of 2018

This time around, lawmakers and the Scott administration are going to need some time to come up with a creative compromise that doesn't increase taxes and doesn't use a lot more one-time money.

Somebody has to budge or else state government will have to close down on July 1 — and nobody wants that to happen.

Here's one way it could play out: Right now lawmakers are backing a 2-cent increase in the statewide property tax rate, and they also want to use about $30 million in one-time money.

Say they drop the increase to 1 cent and made up the difference with more surplus money — now that would put the governor in the position of having to accept a small tax increase. Might he let that bill become law without his signature by saying that his only alternative was shutting down state government?

In that case, he'd perhaps say, "Hey the Democrats are willing to do that, but I am not" — and so Scott swallows hard, takes the 1-cent tax increase and then says this is going to be a major campaign issue. 

But again that's just one possibility — we'll have to wait and see how everything ultimately shakes out in Montpelier.

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