House Republican gains could strengthen Scott’s veto powers

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, left, confers with House Republican leader Rep. Patricia McCoy, R-Poultney, at the Statehouse in May 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Election night in Vermont ushered in some surprising and welcome victories for Republicans. 

Gov. Phil Scott was reelected by 67% of voters, with resounding support that was even stronger than polls and political analysts had predicted. 

And the GOP made small but significant gains in the House, picking up three seats and reducing to 99 the Democratic/Progressive majority in the 150-member lower chamber, one short of a so-called “supermajority” needed to override the governor’s vetoes. 

Republican candidates appear to have unseated Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero — who has requested a recount in her election — and the leader of the Progressive Party in the House, Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs. The party also picked up one seat in the Senate, which now has 23 Democrats, including five who share their affiliation with the Progressive Party.

But Democrats still hold overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. It’s unclear whether last Tuesday’s election results will strengthen Gov. Phil Scott’s hand in Montpelier, or whether Democrats and Progressives could work with independents to muster the 100 votes needed to override a Scott veto.   

Eric Davis, a professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, said for the first time in several elections that Republicans “did better than expected in the Legislature” by picking up seats. 

He said Scott will benefit with the “supermajority” being broken because any vetoes will be more difficult to override. “I think Scott is going to be in a very strong position vis-a-vis the Legislature for the next biennium,” Davis said.  

If Johnson loses her seat, Democrats in both chambers will begin the legislative session with new leaders. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, did not run for reelection, opting instead to run for lieutenant governor — losing to eventual winner Molly Gray in the Democratic primary. Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint is poised to take Ashe’s place as the Senate leader.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, counts this as a gain for Republicans, as the Democrats will be less unified while their new leaders focus on getting accustomed to their roles and organizing the caucus.

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“In learning all those ropes, you have a chance for an organized minority to have some more sway,” Benning said. “The new faces that are appearing are going to be looking for places to unify, as opposed to advancing legislation where they know they can create a snowball effect and move on from there.”

“I don’t think that snowball effect of the past session is going to be available to the majority,” he added.

Senate President Pro Tem, Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, right, speaks with Republican Senate leader Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, at the Statehouse on Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Almost four years ago, in January 2017, the Democrats also started a legislative session with completely new leadership in the Statehouse. That year, Ashe and Johnson both began their tenures as leaders of the Senate and House, respectively, and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, P/D, was newly-elected. (Gov. Phil Scott was also elected that year.)

House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, said she had hoped her party would pick up even more House seats on Election Day, but did take “baby steps” toward regaining the 10 seats Republicans lost in the 2018 election.

Despite the gains, McCoy says she doesn’t expect Republicans to be “winning anything” in the House, where Democrats still outnumber Republicans two to one. But she suspects the party will have “less of an uphill battle when it comes to sustaining a veto” and hopes Democrats will be more willing to compromise.

“I think people are just looking for balance in Montpelier. That’s what I’m taking from voters,” McCoy said. 

The three seats gained by Republicans knock the “super coalition” of Democratic and Progressive lawmakers down from 102 to 99 members — just short of the 100 needed to override Scott’s frequent vetoes. Progressives held on to their seven seats, and Democrats now hold 92.

There are also still five independents in the House. In some cases, independents have joined Democrats and Progressives in overriding the governor’s vetoes. 

Scott vetoed six bills in the last legislative biennium, and four in the last session. Democrats succeeded in overriding only two: a minimum wage increase in February, and the Global Warming Solutions Act in September. In other cases, such as Scott’s vetoes of a bill that would have established a waiting period for handgun purchases, and a bill that would have given Vermonters the ability to sue polluters for medical monitoring costs, Democrats didn’t attempt to override because they didn’t have the votes.

In one instance, with a paid family leave bill, Democrats tried and failed to override Scott — House Democrats fell one vote short of succeeding. 

Mustering the votes for a veto override can be difficult for House leaders, as the Democratic caucus in Vermont falls along a wide political spectrum. 

Molly Gray, Mitzi Johnson, Jill Krowinski, Becca Balint
Molly Gray, candidate for lieutenant governor (left), joins House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski and Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint at a Rally to Elect Vermont Women on Aug. 24. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Johnson, the House speaker, said despite the reduced numbers that Democrats, independents and Progressives together still have 104 seats — enough for party leaders to build coalitions. 

“We needed a coalition of Democrats, independents and Progressives on minimum wage. And we had a solid coalition of Democrats, independents and Progressives on Global Warming Solutions,” Johnson said. “So it’s still possible.

“And it’s not easy, but it shouldn’t be easy. Overriding a gubernatorial veto should not be a simple and quick thing. It has to be done thoughtfully. That is part of the check-and-balance system that is built into our branches of government,” she said.

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House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, echoed the speaker.

“This last biennium, when we were approaching those overrides, it was a coalition that came together of Democrats, Progressives and independents. … I hope that will continue in the future if we need it to,” Krowinski said.

Overall, she characterized the outcome of last Tuesday’s races as “status quo.”

“The majority of Vermonters sent back strong Democratic majorities in the House and in the Senate,” Krowinski said. 

Krowinski and Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, have said they are considering running for House speaker, if Johnson loses her recount. 

Benning, the Republican leader in the Senate, saw something different. He was surprised that Republicans were able to pick up seats in a presidential election year when the party was expecting a “blue tsunami.” He said the gains show “the pendulum has begun to swing back toward the center.”  

“I think that Vermonters are moving in the direction of deciding that a supermajority status has not served the state well. And somebody with a calm hand like Phil Scott is what people are looking for,” he said. 

Balint said losing the supermajority in the House means Democrats have to do “really careful, collaborative work” and focus on building coalitions. 

She said the divide between rural and urban parts of the state is bigger than the partisan divide between the right and left. 

“It’s always better to have more votes, but I actually see a real opportunity here to listen much more deeply to the needs of our rural communities which cut across all of our districts,” Balint said. “I think it’s going to make us a better legislative body in the Senate, knowing that there is not a supermajority in the House. We’re going to have to be thinking really carefully about the dance that we all have to do.”

Correction: The number of bills Gov. Phil Scott vetoed in the last session was incorrect. He vetoed four, not nine.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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