Democratic lawmakers have been severely critical of Gov. Phil Scott’s plan to avoid an increase in statewide property tax rates, but the Republican governor has also struggled to win buy-in from members of his own party.
The final roll call vote of the 2018 legislative session came a little after 11 p.m. Saturday. The vote was on the state budget. And there were a whole lot of ‘yeses’ from House Republicans.
Scott favors a spending plan that uses $58 million in one-time money to avoid an increase in statewide property tax rates. He asked Republican lawmakers to unite in opposition against any spending plan that doesn’t do it.
Yet every Republican in the Vermont Senate voted in favor of the budget, and so did most Republican members of the House.
Those votes reflect some skepticism among Scott’s natural allies over the governor’s plan to reduce school spending.
“I mean, I appreciate the governor having a bold proposal,” Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright says. “But … there are questions about how you achieve the governor’s savings.”
Wright is one of the many Republicans who voted ‘yes’ on the budget. Wright says he’s reluctant to use one-time money to buy down tax rates since there’s no guarantee lawmakers will have the cash to do it again next year.
Scott says the education savings plan he unveiled in the waning days of the session will ensure there are future windfalls to continue keeping rates flat.
But Wright, like many of colleagues, isn’t sold on it.
“I think that there are still elements of the plan that have not been fully fleshed out,” Wright says.
The governor says Vermont can trim as much as $400 million from education expenses, primarily by reducing the number of staff in public schools.
House Minority Leader Don Turner says he appreciates Scott's call for education savings. But he says he too has reservations about the plan.
“I don’t see how that materializes in the next year. So using that one-time money and then next year coming back and wanting to spend more one-time money doesn’t work for me,” Turner says.
Republicans’ wariness of the education savings proposal offered up by Scott earlier this month doesn’t mean they oppose his ultimate goal of lowering tax rates and reducing school spending. Many have already begun working with Scott on a counter-proposal.
But the partisan dynamic at play in this year’s veto showdown is far different than a similar episode last year, when the governor had almost unanimous support from GOP lawmakers for his position.
Scott last year wanted Democrats to agree to a statewide contract for teacher health benefits and threatened to veto the budget if they didn't acquiesce. Turner and his minority caucus held several late-session press conferences in 2017, to urge the governor to stand his ground. The Republican minority publicly vowed to sustain his budget veto if necessary.
There have been no similar gestures of solidarity in 2018.
That’s because many Republican lawmakers, like Lamoille County Sen. Richard Westman, just aren’t comfortable with the direction Scott wants to take them in.
Westman says he might be comfortable with Scott’s plan “if you were spending one-time money as a bridge to get to” longer-term education savings. “But I’m not sure spending one-time money what we’re moving towards,” Westman says.
Westman, like many of his GOP colleagues, says Vermont’s education spending problem is a function of its school funding formula. Scott’s education proposal, Westman says, does nothing to address that underlying issue.
“The problem with the education funding formula is that when you vote on your local budget, it’s not connected to your spending,” Westman says. “And I see no one taking that issue on.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe says the vote count on the budget bill Saturday was telling.
“The odd party out here, if you will, has been the administration, who for some reason that’s not good enough,” Ashe says. “And it’s very hard to understand why they wouldn’t support the budget.”
Scott is expected to veto the budget, and call lawmakers back for a special session. In the meantime, he’ll be working to bring more Republicans on board to his position for the next round of the 2018 budget fight.