Editor’s note: Anne Galloway contributed to this report.
Lawmakers left Montpelier Saturday evening after a long day of bickering and backroom negotiations.
As most of the members of the General Assembly milled around waiting for action on legislation and the final gavel, a handful of of House and Senate leaders came to consensus — or not — on more than a dozen bills.
Typically adjournment occurs when the money legislation — appropriations and taxes — goes through, but this year the session ended with disputes over labor bills, immunization requirements for young children and a ban on pig gestation crates.
The infighting in the hours before the gavel fell belied the Legislature’s many accomplishments this session. Lawmakers balanced the budget without raising sales or income taxes (statewide property taxes will go up 2 cents because of the declining grand list). They agreed to rebuild the state office complex in Waterbury after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the facility and to invest more than $100 million in Irene related road repairs. Legislators instituted reforms to the state’s mental health system and made plans to replace the Vermont State Hospital after Irene. They came up with a plan for Vermont’s adoption of the federal health care exchange system, adopted mandatory recycling legislation, passed a renewable energy bill and made the commissioner of education a member of the governor’s cabinet.
Still, on the last day, it was hard to remember those achievements. Lawmakers were tired, irritable and a few were nursing colds (and in some cases hangovers) as they waited for colleagues and lobbyists to make last ditch efforts to keep their pet bills alive.
In one hurried move after another lawmakers scrambled for compromise after compromise, watching some bills live and others die.
Friday night Republicans and Democrats were deadlocked over whether to suspend the rules and vote on a bill that would require non-union school and municipal employees to pay a “fair share” fee to the union. Republicans wanted to block the provision, which would have allowed the Vermont-NEA to collect about $300 a year in dues from about 2,500 non-union members.
Rep. Oliver Olsen, who brought up a point of order Friday that eventually led to political maneuvering to kill the “fair share” bill pointed out that a piece of the bill was missing.
Somewhat mysteriously, when a conference committee report with the underlying education bill came out on the House floor that provision never made it back into the bill.
Just who is to blame is still unclear, but the bottom line was the “fair share” didn’t survive, nor did “23a,” a provision that Democrats said would have allowed Olsen’s district to take advantage of school district consolidation incentives. Olsen says the language was a technical correction and his district, the only one in the state that has successfully merged school boards so far, has already received state incentives.
Olsen was in the hallway being interviewed by a WCAX reporter about the issue when shortly afterward House Committee on Education Chair Joey Donovan began arguing with the Republican representative from Jamaica about what happened.
Donovan said lawmakers were just following the rules. “The calendar we were working off did not include 23a,” she said. “The member from Jamaica is to be complimented because he’s the one that pointed that out.”
Olsen said it was clear the conference committee took that piece out to spite him. “It’s pretty obvious retaliation, but I wasn’t going to hold up the entire bill,” he said.
Rep. Peter Peltz also got into the fray and after a brief tete-a-tete, Olsen reached out and shook Peltz’s hand.
“The union can have their pound of flesh,” Olsen said.
Members of the Senate, most prominently Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans tried to attach numerous pieces to other bills, which ultimately crashed in a ball of flames.
Another labor bill, H.762, which set new rules for workers’ compensation, went down after Republicans in the House voted not to suspend rules to pass the bill because key provisions — most notably an extension of the period for employee claims (14 days as opposed to 7 days) — had been altered by the Senate and in conference committee.
Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said many of the last minute changes could make doing business more expensive, and they were never vetted by the House, which had spent a great deal of time working with labor and business groups to craft the bill.
“They’re basically saying it won’t go unless other provisions are added to it,” she said. “It’s too bad because we’re losing out on a good bill.”
In the last dash to get legislation passed, senators and reps tacked bills onto each others’ bills and conference committee reports. It was so hard to keep track of legislation that reporters who were trying to track the machinations were left wondering what some of the bills were.
Gov. Peter Shumlin who was passing through the downstairs lobby of the Statehouse said to one lawmaker who was being interviewed, “When the press has to ask what the bills are, they aren’t important, and it’s time to go home.”
Still, lawmakers who had worked for two years on some legislation pushed the late-in the-game antics right up to the end Saturday afternoon.
A bill prohibiting pig gestation crates threatened to drag down multiple bills but never squirmed through. The House and the Senate failed to reach a compromise on just how much access to allow police officers to information on an online prescription drug database. And a consumer protection bill slid through at the last minute directing natural gas companies, i.e., Vermont Gas Systems, a subsidiary of Gaz Metro, to provide a 4 percent discount to low-income customers.
The omnibus agriculture bill, H.774, was dropped in the final hours. The legislation would have set new rules for meat inspection, allowed the maple industry to voluntarily adopt a new labeling system and given the Agency of Agriculture the authority to regulate animal foot baths.
For weeks, union representatives for the American Federation of Teachers tried to get H.97, a bill that would allow child-care providers to unionize, attached to another bill. Those attempts failed.
Likewise, a small group of House reps repeatedly posed legislation that would have directed the Public Service Board to ensure that CVPS ratepayers wouldn’t be on the hook for the $21 million they gave the utility for a bailout in the early 2000s once a merger deal with Green Mountain Power goes through. Though the Senate passed a provision to that effect a few weeks ago, a majority in the House didn’t go along. In the end, about 50 members of the House signed a letter urging the Public Service Board to return ratepayers’ money through a credit to electric bills and to prohibit “the recovery of these funds in future rates.”
Passage of the search and rescue bill, which was borne out of the tragic death of 19-year-old hiker Levi Duclos, had been in doubt as it became part of the end of the year scrum. The legislation was approved by the Senate on Saturday as members of the Duclos family watched the proceedings. The bill requires the Vermont State Police to adopt interim protocols that requires the Vermont State Police to respond immediately to missing recreationalist calls, sets up an incident command structure for searches conducted by state police and municipal and county officers, and requires the Department of Public Safety to hire a consultant to assess local resources for search and rescue and from that information create a statewide database.
At the final hour, outgoing lawmakers made bittersweet speeches and leaders scuttled from room to room making sure all the loose ends were tied up.
House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell praised the work of the General Assembly.
Smith pointed to the way lawmakers handled reapportionment as an example of how representatives get past partisanship in order to work together to get things done.
“Only in Vermont could this process, which is so partisan in other states and at the national level, be so inclusive,” Smith said. “It’s a testament to all of you.”
The Speaker recounted the struggles of Vermonters after Irene and how lawmakers came through to give towns aid to rebuild their communities. He touted the Legislature’s commitment to a balanced budget and investments in job creation initiatives and the working landscape.
He acknowledged there wasn’t universal support for the state’s health care reforms. “I know we disagree, but without disagreements we can’t make things right,” Smith said.
Smith, who is well-regarded for instilling discipline in the House, ended on a self-deprecating note: “I really don’t have any power, all the power resides in the committee chairs … it’s because of the work they’ve done that we look so good.”
Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin praised the General Assembly’s willingness to solve problems associated with the Vermont State Hospital that “have evaded governors of both parties for generations.”
Shumlin praised the Legislature for helping to put Vermonters who were devastated by Tropical Storm Irene back on their feet.
Though the governor was initially ambivalent about returning state workers to Waterbury, he told lawmakers: “You listened and the judgment was right go back to Waterbury, to expand in downtown Barre and bring agencies together.”
“You pledged Vermont strong, and we delivered Vermont strong,” Shumlin said. “It’s a partnership we must continue. We have a lot to be proud of.”
The governor also gave credit to the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature for making sure his agenda wasn’t sent off the rails by the tragedy of Tropical Storm Irene.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done to make our work possible,” Shumlin said.
As the final gavel fell, a sense of calm overcame the General Assembly as Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and independents began to make amends and let go of the tiffs they fought so vigorously over just hours before. As Olsen and Donovan ran into each other the Statehouse lobby, they gave each other a parting hug.
For all the bills that didn’t make it through, there’s always the next biennium.
Editor’s note: This story was updated between 5:58 a.m. and 7:40 a.m. May 6.
Clarification: Oliver Olsen says his district had already taken advantage of state incentives to merge school boards.