House and Senate leaders have sketched out a deal on paid leave and minimum wage weeks ahead of the next legislative session. And it looks almost exactly like a plan that was discussed last May — before negotiations blew up.
Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, say they are hoping to advance the bills to their respective chambers for votes in January, when the Legislature convenes.
Assuming the legislation passes, Democrats would accomplish something they were unable to do last session: force Republican Gov. Phil Scott to veto the popular policies or let them pass into law.
The specifics of the minimum wage bill still need to be hammered out, but Johnson said she will back an increase to between $12 and $13 an hour over two years. The current minimum wage is $10.96. The paid leave bill will include mandatory coverage for parental leave and time off to care for family members, but will make personal injury insurance optional.
While House leaders favored a more robust paid leave program and a moderate minimum wage increase, senators had wanted $15 per hour by 2024 and a less expensive paid leave policy.
Both sides had tentatively agreed to concessions during the final days of the 2019 legislative session. The deal included a minimum wage proposal to put Vermont on a path to a $12.25 minimum wage by 2021, and a paid leave proposal that made personal injury coverage optional.
On May 23, House and Senate negotiators said said they were ready to pass them. But the plan would fall apart less than 24 hours later, when Johnson sent Ashe a letter outlining five other possible proposals she could accept or the House would adjourn. Ashe didn’t respond to Johnson before the noon deadline she set in the letter, and the speaker promptly adjourned for the session.
In the six months since the end of session dramatics, Ashe and Johnson have been talking about a path forward for the bills.
“We acknowledged at the time we were very close, but the clock ran out and so the fact that what we are likely to vote on in January will look similar to what we were discussing at the end of May makes a lot of sense,” Ashe said Friday.
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“We are picking up where the discussions were, and moving forward — which is how it works with bills all the time,” he added.
Johnson now believes that the bills senators passed in May, after the House legislators went home, “are very reasonable compromises.”
“They ultimately listened, and they passed those over after we had adjourned,” Johnson said. The versions of the bills being advanced this coming session do not, however, meet any of the demands made by Johnson in her letter to Ashe in May.
The timeline for the minimum wage bill will be pushed back a year with a slightly higher target due to the 18 cent increase that will take effect in January under the existing wage-setting process, which is tied to inflation.
Johnson said that when lawmakers return to Montpelier, they will be able to able to get a sense of how the wage increase would impact Medicaid-funded health workers now that fiscal analysts have had time to study the issue.
Last year, many House members were concerned to learn that increasing the wage to $15 an hour would mean the state would need to pay tens of millions for some health workers at nursing homes, residential care homes, assisted living residences, and adult day agencies, to see raises.
Johnson said she is also content with the paid leave proposal, despite the fact that it includes fewer benefits than the version of the program that passed the House last year.
Last year, the Senate scaled back the House’s paid leave bill, cutting the number of compensated weeks workers could take to care for sick family members, or newborn children. The Senate’s changes brought the cost of the program down from $80 million to $29 million annually.
“If we spend all of our time fighting over what our ideal is and we’re not asking the question ‘Does this viable proposal move us in the right direction,’ then I don’t think we’re doing our jobs,” Johnson said.
“Part of the issue last year was I didn’t have the votes for what the Senate was proposing on minimum wage. Tim didn’t have the votes for what the House was proposing on paid leave,” she said. “So we’ve got to find a way to work it out.”
Both Ashe and Johnson likely had the votes to pass the bills, but not to override a veto from Scott, who has consistently opposed both policies. The Legislature faces the same predicament in 2020, with the same lawmakers and governor in place.
Scott has already vetoed versions of each proposal in the past and has offered little reason for Democrats to believe he would support the policies in 2020. Moderate Democrats in the House have generally opposed a minimum wage increase that is not tied to economic performance, while moderates in Senate don’t want a paid leave payroll tax without a simultaneous increase in wages to offset it.
In January, Scott and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire pitched a two-state paid family leave program paid for by a voluntary — instead of a mandatory — payroll tax. The Granite State governor has recently indicated he has moved away from the plan.
With a year until the next gubernatorial election, Democrats are looking to ramp up the pressure on Scott, who is already fundraising for a possible run at a third term in office.
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At a Vermont Democratic Party gathering last weekend, officials said they plan to use Scott’s vetoes against him on the campaign trail.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who is contemplating a gubernatorial bid, said Democrats have been too concerned about securing the 100 House votes needed to override the governor, and not passing enough of its priorities.
“If we say we’re not going to do it because we can’t get to 100, then we never expose the governor for his lack of vision, his lack of work for the state of Vermont with respect to working Vermonters and our rural economy,” Zuckerman said.
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