House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe say they expect decisive action on major policy fronts during the 2018 legislative session, but as the session gets underway, it’s already clear that it’ll be tough to find consensus within the Legislature on many of those issues, let alone with Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
Johnson and Ashe faced some unavoidable political headwinds last year. Both Democrats were new to their leadership positions. They had a newly elected Republican governor to contend with. And Donald Trump had just been elected president.
“Last year, while we made progress on a lot of good issues, there was sort of this feeling of treading water, waiting for the federal government, and that’s really not what Vermonters expect of us,” Johnson said during a media briefing in her office Wednesday morning.
This year, Johnson says, will be different. And Ashe seems to agree.
“Bigger policy topics with bigger implications are already on queue, and I think you know many of them,” Ashe says.
Lawmakers, however, have a ways to go if they’re going to deliver on some of their keystone initiatives, such as coming up with a long-term funding source for a water-quality initiative expected to cost $1 billion over the next 20 years.
Several prominent lawmakers have signed onto an annual per-parcel fee, on every landowner in the state, to pay for the water cleanup plan. Johnson says she’s far from convinced that’s the way to go.
“What I know of the per-parcel fee is some of the high administrative costs of it, which are concerning,” Johnson says.
Lawmakers are also at odds on some other key policy goals for Democrats, like the $15 minimum wage bill that’s been introduced in the Senate.
On Wednesday, Johnson said that if lawmakers are going to set a $15 minimum wage, then they need to give special consideration to employers who offer ancillary benefits, like health care, retirement plans or paid time off.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re looking at the whole package,” Johnson says.
But Ashe, who says the $15 minimum wage is a “personal priority” for him in 2018, says including the dollar value of employee benefits in the calculation of a worker’s “wage” will only burden the system.
“Minimum wage is pretty simple,” Ashe says. “And starting to factor in other forms of compensation makes for a more complicated bureaucratic structure.”
Ashe and Johnson have plenty of common ground too, however. Both say the state’s mental health system is in dire need of added bed capacity, and both say they’re ready to invest more state resources to make it happen.