The message at the House Republicans’ kickoff caucus fell closely in step with that of the House Democrats’ meeting: Tamp down spending.

House Democrats met at the Statehouse last Saturday in a public event that was also attended by lobbyists and reporters. The Republicans held their event offsite and out of the public eye Nov. 9, after they elected their chairman at the Elks Club in Montpelier.

House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, summed up what he told his caucus members: “My overriding message was that we can’t keep spending the way we have been spending. I don’t want to see us raise taxes. That’s the same message I’ve been talking about every year.”

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Don Turner. VTD/Josh Larkin
Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton.

“We’ve been talking about common sense leadership in spending and taxes for years, and I’m very happy that the Speaker is coming around to that way of thinking,” Turner said. “If he is the guy who can do what we’ve been talking about for the last three years, then I want to help him.”

But in an op-ed published last week, Turner wrote that Gov. Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith led the Legislature into its current pickle — a $70 million budget gap  — and are shirking the responsibility of fixing it.

The swath of common ground between parties might be limited, according to Turner. He said that while he’s glad Shumlin and Smith’s views on spending and taxation have “started to come around,” he expects the consensus to be short-lived.

From Turner’s perspective, Republicans want to hold down spending and keep taxes low because it makes fiscal sense, while Shumlin is merely postponing tax hikes until the implementation of single-payer health care.

Open or closed?

Caucuses, designed to brief party members on legislation, aren’t governed by legislative rules, so parties can close the doors to the public if they choose.

Turner held several private, offsite caucuses toward the end of the last legislative session. But his year, he’s pledged to make his caucuses more transparent. As part of that effort, he’s booked Room 11 at the Statehouse for each Tuesday at noon, so members of public and the media will know where to find them.

According to Turner, the November caucus “wasn’t intended to be a private affair,” and reporters, who attended the chair election that preceded the caucus, could have attended had they known about it. No mention of the caucus was made during the election.

“It’s not like I want to do things behind closed doors. The reason I chose to hold it when we did is because it coincided with the GOP reorganization meeting and many of my caucus members told me that they were going to be in Montpelier so about a month before we set up caucus for immediately after,” Turner said.

Smith said he didn’t have an opinion about whether Republicans kept their weekly caucuses closed or open to the public.

Smith told protestors on Wednesday that he wouldn't make promises he couldn't keep. Photo by Josh Larkin.
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville.

“It’s up to them how they want to run their caucus and whether they want to have them public or not. I’m not going to criticize the Republicans for deciding they want to have an offsite meeting and close it to the press,” Smith said.

But House Democrats have held public caucuses once a week as a long as he can remember, Smith said. “It’s always been the case that there’s been an open caucus. Certainly it’s been the case since I have been in the body.”

That’s largely because it’s convenient for members, Smith said, but he added, “I think it’s also a matter of accessibility to the public because people know every week what time we meet, and if they want to be here they will be here.”

Senate Democrats have also made a habit of holding private caucuses, and both parties hold offsite dinners from time to time.

VTDigger's deputy managing editor.

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