Legislative Update

Legislative Update

The first half the Vermont Assembly’s legislative session is complete and legislators return this week from a Town Meeting recess to face a series of difficult decisions about the budget, education, Lake Champlain Cleanup, marijuana legalization, an ethics commission, and health care.

Hanging over all this is the specter of the Trump health care bill and what it means for the state budget, especially for the state’s Medicaid program.

Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille told reporters last week that the Trump health care bill being hurried through the House in Washington could mean a $200 million hit to Vermont’s Medicaid program. The Trump budget proposal could force Vermont to make difficult decisions throughout state government. At the Natural Resources, Transportation and Commerce agencies, much of the budget comes from Washington. Huge cuts in these programs by Trump and the Republican Congress would mean dire budget decisions for Vermont. Many of these decisions will be made in the next eight weeks. And they will be difficult.

The legislature, controlled by Democrats, has had to make tough choices before, but rarely in a political environment as charged as the current one nationally.

Governor Phil Scott has staked out a position in general opposition to Trump, most notably around refugees, immigration and law enforcement. Early on, he teamed up with new attorney General TJ Donovan and Democrats to resist federal proposals in these areas and to ensure that law enforcement and other authorities go to no extra lengths to find and deport people in Vermont.

Politically, this is wise for Scott. But he also means it. He is from Barre, VT, made famous as the granite capitol of the world by Italian, Spanish and French Canadian stone carvers. These are Scott’s neighbors today. As he moves ahead, he will curry political favor with moderate Democrats in Vermont, especially on issues where he is not threatened politically. His immigration position angered Vermont’s right-wing. But that is less than 30 percent of the vote. The governor always has his eye on the other 70 percent.

But that is where the agreement with Democrats ends thus far.

The governor’s proposal to freeze education spending, change school budget voting schedules and force teachers to pay more for health care, is dying at the hands of the Democratic House. Even though he is trying to use those savings to fund pre-K and higher education, the proposal was dead on arrival.

On health care, major domo Al Gobeille, once the chair of the all-powerful Green Mountain Care Board, is now running the sprawling Human Services Agency, which oversees welfare programs, corrections, health care, foster care and many more. He lacks the position to drive the health care agenda as he did at the Green Mountain Care Board, although he is the most respected health care force in the state. And with the governor lukewarm about health care reform from the Shumlin era, health care policy lacks a driving political force. That could change when the governor appoints a new chair of the GMCB. That appointment – and his appointment of a new chair of the all-important Public Service Board to regulate utilities and drive energy policy – will say much about the governor’s intentions in energy and health care.

The governor’s proposed executive orders to streamline government are moving easily through the legislature with the exception of his idea to merge the Agency of Commerce and Community Development with the Department of Labor. The governor says the proposal will better align the needs of employees and employers. State employees and their union smell a rat – an effort to give employers leverage over workers.

Another executive order to create an Agency of Digital Services will be approved, along with a proposal to combine the Department of Liquor Control and the Lottery Commission and a new Agency of Economic Opportunity.

The Agency of Digital Services would replace the existing Department of Information and Innovation and be run by a new Secretary of Digital Services who would report directly to the governor and have authority over IT personnel throughout state government. Currently, IT directors and staff throughout state agencies and departments report to their respective secretaries and commissioners. Under the new structure, IT personnel would report directly to the Secretary of Digital Services.

The DII is widely considered a failure, since it was created by the legislature at the behest of Gov. Jim Douglas. And the legislature has chafed or years over the spending of millions on IT projects it doesn’t understand.

The legislature has a 90-day window to act on the orders. The House or Senate can vote to block an order by resolution but if no action is taken the orders will go into effect in mid-April.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce has proposed paying for Lake Champlain cleanup via bonding, per-parcel fees on property sales and many other ideas.

The House Judiciary committee is working hard to pass a bill to legalize small amounts of home-grown marijuana. Proponents call it a “penalties’’ bill that finishes the job of decriminalizing marijuana possession. Opponents see it as the first step toward retail sales of pot on Main St., drugged driving and major health care impacts on young people.

But in the end, much of the policy work is noise next to the state budget. Democrats are smarting from the governor’s proposal, which level funded state government. Traditionally, the governor submits a balanced budget that the legislature changes. But in the end, the two sides come together for an agreement and a balanced budget.
This year, the governor threw a budget on the table and basically told the legislature to write its own document. That puts enormous pressure on the new speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, Senate President Tim Ashe and the two chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations committees. It is those leaders who now have to make the tough spending decisions.

What to look for:

The governor and the legislature will make a budget deal. They usually do with the exception of when Governor Douglas vetoed and the legislature overrode that veto in 2009. After an agreement on the budget, all the other issues will be put on a fast-track to passage or death on the way to adjournment sometime in May.

Kevin Ellis

An award-winning former journalist, Kevin Ellis provides strategic counsel to companies and nonprofits nationwide in message development, crisis management, PR and social media. Kevin co-founded Ellis Mills after 22 years at KSE Partners, LLC, Vermont's leading government affairs firm. While at KSE, he led campaigns and counseled companies and non-profits in government strategy, public relations and crisis communications. At KSE, he helped lead the firm from three employees to 35, extending its reach into national government affairs consulting and strategic communications.