Gov. Phil Scott says he'll call lawmakers back to Montpelier for a special session next Wednesday, but the budget impasse between the Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers shows no signs of letting up.
Scott sent a letter to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe on Tuesday to inform them he intends to call a special session starting next Wednesday, "with the goal of concluding on or before Friday, May 25."
Scott has indicated he’ll veto the state budget passed by the Legislature Saturday.
And since lawmakers chose to adjourn without scheduling a veto session, they’ll need to hold a special session in order to get a budget consensus before the fiscal year expires June 30.
It’s up to Scott to call that special session. Having that session begin it next Wednesday, Scott says, will give him and legislative leaders a full week for negotiating sessions in the interim, to try to lay the groundwork for a budget deal in advance of the session.
Scott's chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, says the two sides aren’t as far apart as the rancor between them suggests.
“When you look at this discussion in the grand scheme of things, we’re very, very close,” Gibbs said. “When everybody takes a step back from the politics, we’re quite close to an agreement.”
Gibbs optimism, however, betrays the philosophical divide between lawmakers and the governor that led to Scott to issue the veto threat in the first place.
Scott wants to use $58 million in one-time money to avoid an increase in next year’s statewide property tax rates.
Lawmakers were willing to use some money in this year’s budget to buy down rates. But Gibbs says property tax obligations are still set to rise by more than $30 million next year, under the Legislature’s spending plan.
“I think we’re being very clear about what we are going to do and what we’re not going to do,” Gibbs said. “What we’re not going to do is to raise taxes on property taxpayers when we don’t need to raise taxes on them. It’s an absolute bright line. The governor’s been clear about it.”
Johnson, however, says the Legislature has chosen to put the bulk of the one-time money toward unfunded pension obligations. She says lawmakers’ plan will save taxpayers $100 million in avoided interest payments over the next 20 years.
Scott’s plan, she says, delivers a one-time tax rate buy-down without offering any lasting fiscal benefits.
“Our choices are to give Vermonters back $30 million or $100 million. And I vote for $100 million,” Johnson said.
Johnson says the most sensible path forward is for Scott to drop his veto threat, and sign the state budget when it arrives on his desk.
Johnson says the budget passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
“I think there’s actually quite a few things he’s getting in the legislation that are worth signing into law,” said Johnson.
In his letter to Ashe and Johnson, Scott proposed at least three meetings between now and next Wednesday, "to iron out an agreement" before the special session begins. In a response to Scott Wednesday, Ashe declined the offer.
“The idea that two or three or four legislators would sit in a back room with the governor and a couple of his top political staff and basically subvert the rest of the Legislature just doesn’t sit well with me," Ashe said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
Ashe says the budget passed by lawmakers earned unanimous bipartisan support in the Senate, and nearly unanimous support in the House. And, like Johnson, he says the surest way to resolve the budget impasse is for Scott to sign the spending plan into law.
Scott vetoed the budget last year as well — but he said he wouldn’t let disagreements between him and lawmakers lead to a government shutdown. At a press conference Wednesday, the governor said this year, he won’t budge from his position.
“I believe Vermonters are solidly behind this. They don’t want to see more taxes and fees, in a year when we have more revenue. So I’m ready to stick it out," Scott said.
Update 5/16/2018 3:32 p.m. This post was updated to include Ashe's response to the letter Gov. Phil Scott sent to legislative leadership Tuesday and Scott's Wednesday press conference remarks.
Update 5/15/2018 5:51 p.m. This post was updated to include the news of Gov. Phil Scott's letter to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe regarding the governor's intention to call for a special session beginning May 23.
Correction 5/16/2018 11:55 a.m. The letter to Johnson and Scott was sent on Tuesday, not Wednesday evening.