Politics often makes for strange bedfellows. But the Statehouse alliance behind the budget this year is unusually odd. House Republicans have joined with Democratic leadership to ensure passage of the $5.6 billion spending plan.
If you’re looking for a harsh critic of the House budget proposal, then House Minority Leader Don Turner is your man.
“We’re spending $68 million more this year than last year,” he says, offering up one major objection to the fiscal year 2016 general-fund package. “That’s another $108 of expenditure for every Vermont, if you take it and divide by 625,000 people.”
The Milton Republican says the long-term consequences of this 4.8-percent general-fund increase could be dire.
“Our number one priority was to put Vermont back on a sound and sustainable fiscal path,” Turner says. “And this budget does not do that.”
Oddly enough though, Turner and his 53-member Republican caucus are among the main reasons the House is expected to approve the budget this week.
That’s because Turner has guaranteed enough "yes" votes on the budget from the right to ensure passage of the budget bill. And he says he entered into the deal so that House leadership won’t resort to making concessions to the left.
“Because their alternative was to increase spending to attract the more liberal side of the House,” Turner says. “We still believe this budget needs to be reduced further, if we’re going to fix the problem going forward. But if they have to go the other way and spend more, the problem gets bigger. It hurts our constituents, it hurts my constituents.”
However irresponsible his caucus deems this budget proposal to be, Turner says it’s the lesser of two fiscal evils. And he says House leadership made it clear that if his caucus couldn’t get behind this plan, then Republicans would be even less pleased with the alternative.
Turner says the House version of the budget is an improvement, in that it spends less than the one put forward by Gov. Peter Shumlin in January. And his caucus were also able to extract some concessions in exchange for their support, such as short-term financial support for police dispatch centers that would have otherwise been cut by the end of June.
The centers are located in Republican strongholds of Rutland and the Northeast Kingdom.
The negotiating tactic by Democratic leadership irks left-leaning lawmakers like Burlington Rep. Chris Pearson.
“It is a curious choice that the speaker is making to coalesce with the Republicans and not turn to the more liberal part of his own caucus, and then my own caucus, the Progressives, to try to craft a budget and tax package,” Pearson says. “And that raises a lot of concerns for me.”
Republican assistance for Democratic money bills isn’t limited to the budget. Turner had previously said his caucus would vote as a bloc against a revenue bill that raises about $35 million in new revenue to support the budget.
On Thursday afternoon, however, Progressives and liberal Democrats had cobbled together enough "no" votes – they’re seeking additional revenues to offset some of the spending reductions in the budget – to throw the fate of the vote in question.
Democratic leaders raced to Turner in the minutes before the floor vote on that bill, and told him they needed a handful of Republican votes to prevent liberals from defeating the proposal. Turner, employing the same logic he’d used in negotiations for the budget bill, obliged.
“If we don’t work with the majority in this case, and negotiate with them, the alternative is the other side will,” Turner said. “And there’s a group of them that wants to see a lot more taxes.”
Smith says the process isn’t about choosing one side over another. And he says the budget reflects compromise with numerous constituencies. Smith says it was important to have unanimous support for the budget in the Appropriations Committee. And he says negotiations with the four Republican members of that committee were designed to secure a unanimous vote.
Smith says his job is to find the most votes for a budget that strikes an appropriate balance between new revenues and spending reductions. He says concessions to left-leaning Democrats won't necessarily solve the count problem.
“I think you have to remember that the Democratic caucus actually has a fair amount of diversity in it, and philosophical diversity,” Smith says. “So it’s not a lock that everything within a budget that’s going to make people on the left side of the caucus happy is going to make people on the right side of the caucus happy.”
The budget is expected to win final approval in the House Friday.