Democratic Gains In Vermont House Sap Veto Power For Republican Governor

Nov 8, 2018

Gov. Phil Scott may have cruised to re-election Tuesday, but he’ll return to the governor’s office with diminished power over state government.

During Scott’s first term in office, the Republican used his veto power to exercise outsize control over the state’s purse strings. Scott vetoed three state budgets during the last two legislative sessions — a political strategy rendered viable only because of a Republican minority in the House of Representatives that had the numbers to sustain those vetoes.

But House Republicans took a beating Tuesday, when they saw their ranks fall to only 43 — and they need at least 50 to sustain a veto. And with Democrats and Progressives now holding a veto-proof supermajority in the House of Representatives (they already had one in the Senate), the brute political force Scott used to impose his will in 2018 will be diminished next year.

“It’ll mean a different strategy,” Scott said in an interview with VPR Tuesday night.

Despite beating his Democratic challenger by 15 points Tuesday, Scott seemed more chastened than triumphant.

“In electing a governor of one party and a Legislature by another, the message Vermonters have sent to us tonight is clear: 'Work together,'" Scott said.

The same Democratic lawmakers that have chastised Scott over his approach to governance said they’re willing to give the relationship another try.

“I will say that if I chair the [Senate] Education Committee again, I will make an attempt very early on to reach out to attempt to work up ideas, work up actual language with the administration,” says Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth. “In other words, I will go back to square one, stretch out my hand and see where we go.”

Baruth, however, said the governor will have to change his approach as well, because the new legislative dynamic means lawmakers can no longer “be held hostage with the budget and the tax bill.”

“I have heard signals from the governor and his team that they may have overshot the mark on brinksmanship. And I’m willing to admit that, you know, we might have responded a little more aggressively than we might have,” Baruth said.

The new numbers in Vermont House — Democrats hold 95 seats, Republicans hold 43, Progressives hold seven, and independents hold five — don’t necessarily mean Democrats will be able to impose their will over Scott, either.

Scott used his veto pen during the last session to block bills that would have created a $15 minimum wage and a paid family leave program for almost every employee in the state.

But while those issues remain at the forefront of the Democratic agenda, their veto-proof majority in the House doesn’t mean they’ll be able to get them passed in 2019.

“No, it doesn’t mean that at all. It really doesn’t,” says Waterbury Rep. Tom Stevens, who helped lead the push for both the $15 minimum wage and paid family leave. “We’re still a pretty broad tent. We have plenty of folks who are a little bit more conservative than I am.”

Democrats might have had the 76-vote majority needed to pass those bills. But the proposals didn’t enjoy unanimous support in the Democratic caucus, and it’s far from certain that House leadership would be able to summon the 100 votes needed to override a veto.

And Stevens said veto overrides aren’t a desirable option under any circumstance.

“No one wants to make a habit out of overriding vetoes. I did that in my first year here and it’s not the fun political thing to have happen, because it’s a breakdown in the system,” Stevens said. “So hopefully this system will work in a way where we … respect the executive branch and the executive branch respects the legislative branch, and we’re able to get legislation done.”