The word “historic” is seriously overused these days, too often to describe events more curious than momentous. A case can be made, however, for the events taking place this week in the “veto session”, in which the supermajority Democratic legislature confronts a popular Republican governor. Consider this combination of facts.
Last year the Democratic legislature enthusiastically passed the crown jewel of its years-long campaign to price fossil fuels out of the market in the name of reducing “climate change”. Gov. Scott, correctly recognizing the Clean Heat Standard as regressive cost-inflating equivalent of a carbon tax on heating oil, natural gas, propane, and kerosene, vetoed the measure.
The Democratic leaders were shocked when three defecting Democrats, plus two independents and 46 Republicans , sustained the veto by one vote. They redoubled their efforts to make sure a handful of Democratic defectors could never again give that Republican governor a veto victory.
In the ensuing election, Governor Scott swept to a 70% victory – but the number of Republicans elected to the House dropped to the lowest level in the state’s history (38), and they remained a 7-vote minority in the 30-member Senate.
As I wrote last November, “the Democrat-led House and Senate now have, and will enthusiastically use, the power to drive through any measure its leaders, spurred on by their clamoring interest groups, decide upon. The Governor may get a respectful hearing on practical questions of implementation, but he will have no power to stop this coming Johnstown Flood.”
In the last session they exhumed the vetoed Clean Heat Standard bill (renumbered S.5), fraudulently labelled it the “Affordable Heat Act”, drove it through both chambers in May, and overrode Gov. Scott’s veto. Now comes the final act of 2023, which is likely to merit the description “historic”.
Gov. Scott vetoed the FY24 budget bill (H.494, $8.5 billion) because, in his view, it “relies on new and regressive taxes and fees, combined with overall increases in base spending that is far beyond our ability to sustain.”
This sets up a truly historic situation. In 2009 Gov. Douglas vetoed the legislature’s budget for the first time in the state’s history. The Democratic legislature overrode his veto, and that budget went into effect, the governor’s concerns notwithstanding.
But if Democrats and Progressives, concerned about the Democrat budget’s termination of support for motel accommodations for some 2,800 homeless people mostly in Greater Burlington, vote to sustain the veto…on July 1 the state will have no General Fund budget. Then what?
The Democrats could rush through a substitute budget including tens of millions of new dollars to assure “alternate stable settings” (not to be confused with a “solution”) for the homeless through June 2024. To move quickly they would need to suspend the legislature’s rules, which require possibly unattainable three-fourth votes.
Another scenario is for the Democrats to overturn the veto, then quickly enact a new bill adding $20 million or so to keep on housing the homeless until some presently unidentified resolution is conceived.
The legislature is not likely to consider the solution now under discussion in Rutland: distributing bus or train tickets to the homeless who promise not to return.
The budget isn’t the only contentious veto battle. The governor also vetoed a truly historic doubling of legislator’s pay and benefits (S.39). He also vetoed a universal child care bill (H.217) that will offer benefits for families of four with incomes up to $172,000 a year. This would be financed, at its beginning, at $124 million a year raised by another regressive measure, increasing the payroll tax.
The payroll tax is also the designated honey pot for the legislature’s paid family leave measure, sure to be acted on in 2024 (beginning price tag: $116 million per year.)
Taken together, these issues are far greater than squabbling over small percentage spending differences, motor vehicle fee increases, and even doubled legislative benefits. Gov. Scott is gravely concerned about a state government well beyond our capacity to sustain without crushing new taxes, General Fund budget obligations rising every year, and paid family leave and more climate subsidies on the agenda for FY 2025.
How this conflict is resolved may well merit the adjective “historic”.
Update (June 20): The Governor’s veto of H.494, the FY 2024 Appropriations bill, was overridden by House (105-42) and Senate (25-5). A new Sec. 6 of H.171 was added to provide a lengthy list of suggestions as to where the Governor might find funds to keep various classes of the homeless housed.
The Governor’s veto of H.217, the child welfare bill, was overridden by the House (116-31) and Senate (23-7).
The Governor vetoed S.39, the legislative pay and benefits expansion bill, but the bill was held over for attention in 2024.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org)