The Senate spent more than 12 hours over two days on the Big Bill this week.
You might think the state is in a major budget-cutting moment, but that isn’t the case.
And yet, until 9 p.m. Thursday night senators hadn’t had a single debate over the $5 billion government spending bill that the Legislature must pass in order to leave Montpelier.
The reason then for the epic, two-day floor exercises? The budget bill has become the favorite vehicle for complex public policy legislation.
Remember the 2010 Pete the Moose episode? This year there isn’t anything snuck into the budget itself, according to Sen. Jane Kitchel, chief budget-writer for the Senate.
The Senate Appropriations Committee delivered a “clean bill” to the Senate floor; the mischief came in the form of 16 amendments (including substitute amendments) tacked on to the underlying Big Bill, like so much ballast on a wayward ship.
The number of amendments that were added to the budget and that have no direct relevance to the appropriations bill is unprecedented, according to several senators and observers of the process, including longtime state officials.
Most of the amendments were for initiatives that would normally be considered as standalone bills, including the CVPS-Green Mountain Power merger, a proposal to allow child-care providers to collectively bargain, public ownership of VELCO and a moratorium on wind power. (There were also a few budget-related amendments — a generation tax provision and a change to the Choices for Care appropriation.)
What do utility and labor policy have to do with the budget? Not much, say a number of senators and observers of the Green Room. But it isn’t easy ruling that an amendment is “ungermane” when it’s attached to the budget. That’s because the appropriations bill is a catchall for every function of state government.
For hours, the state’s budget aficionados hung around, on call to answer questions the senators might have about the $5 billion spending measure before them.
Jim Reardon, commissioner of the Department of Finance and Management, who has worked in state government for several decades, said he couldn’t remember a time when so many unrelated amendments had been tacked onto the budget, even when the state was embroiled in mega-budget battles a few years ago and in the 1990s.
Sen. Dick Sears, a member of the Appropriations Committee and a longtime senator, was incensed during the debate on Thursday night. He called the budget amendments a “bastardization of the process.”
“Where does it stop?” Sears asked in an interview. “What isn’t germane to this bill?”
“I believe in this process and enjoy it, but this has taken it to new heights of absurdity,” Sears said.
To prove just how ridiculously incongruous some of the legislation was in relationship to the budget, Sears offered (and then withdrew) an amendment to make treason a crime punishable by “life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”
Sears said his remarks aren’t a criticism of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell. He attributed the unusual shift in protocol to senators’ frustrations that their issues hadn’t been heard. It all started, he said, with the Death with Dignity bill, which was added to the tanning bed ban legislation. “That opened the floodgate, unfortunately, on the budget,” Sears said.
The amendments with the biggest policy implications — the merger, the wind power moratorium and child-care unionization — were bottled up in committee most of the session.
“This is a reflection to me that the Senate is not willing to go through the committee process,” Sears said.
He also blamed outside influences for complicating the politics this year. Lobbyists for Green Mountain Power, CVPS, the beverage industry, wind power companies and others have been more prevalent. In addition, advocacy groups have barraged senators with hundreds of emails from single-issue oriented constituents. Sears said he had received 10 emails alone from people in his district asking him if he had ever been a member of he American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-leaning organization that has written business-friendly sample legislation for state legislatures across the country. (He is not, and never has been a member.)
Trouble is, once the bill reaches conference committee (the bill was messaged over to the House last night) lawmakers will have to not only compare notes on the $5 billion Big Bill, which is roughly 160 pages in length, they’ll also have to take up public policy issues that are not part of the Appropriations’ committees purview.
Many of the bills have not been fully vetted by committees in the Senate, and similar measures have not been taken up in the House.
“There is no way all six of us who deal with the budget, which is difficult enough already and is a full-time job all by itself, can deal with five major bills on top of it in a policy areas we don’t deal with,” Kitchel said.
Rep. Lucy Leriche, majority whip of the House, said many of the amendments haven’t been seen by representatives.
“We have operated with the acknowledgment of the value of passing a budget that doesn’t have extraneous ornaments,” Leriche said. “It’s hard to justify the additions whether we like the amendments or not. It will just make the whole process more difficult.”
Here’s a rundown of Senate doings:
- The Senate passed an amendment in the evening that allows small child-care providers and workers at child-care centers to unionize.
- The Senate passed an amendment from Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, directing the Public Service Board to require utilities to return bailout money to ratepayers in the event of a merger.
- The Senate rejected a proposal from Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R/D-Essex-Orleans, to study 51 percent public ownership of the state’s transmission line system.
- The Senate voted down an amendment from Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, for a three-year moratorium on wind power.
- The Senate and the House agreed to new reapportionment maps. The Senate map remains the same as the original version that passed the Senate, with one exception: Londonderry was moved to Windham County. The deviation rate is 18.01 percent The House map is the same as the House-passed version, with the exceptions of changes to Rupert, Sunderland and Tinmouth. The deviation rate is 18.9 percent, according to Sears.
- Sen. Peg Flory proposed that $3 million of the $12.5 million generation tax on Vermont Yankee be set aside in fiscal year 2014 as contingency money for the state insurance liability fund, to help cover the state’s defense costs in the Entergy lawsuit. The amendment passed.
On Friday, the Senate takes up the miscellaneous tax bill and redistricting. A Saturday session is planned.
Editor’s note: This story was updated between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. April 27. Correction: Sen. Hartwell withdrew a substitute amendment that would have stripped the language from the child-care provider unionization amendment. The provision stands.