By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — The overwhelming majority of Addison County lawmakers on Tuesday voted with the majority in a successful override of Gov. James Douglas’s budget veto, thereby setting in stone a spending plan for fiscal year 2010.
The House voted 100 to 50 — the bare minimum two-thirds majority necessary — to override Douglas’s veto of the $4.5 billion spending plan. It was the first budget veto in the state’s history.
Seven of Addison County’s House nine representatives were on the majority side of the 100-50 override vote; the other two — Reps. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, and Will Stevens, I-Shoreham — voted to sustain the veto, which the governor had delivered Monday afternoon. Negotiations between his administration and legislative leaders failed to reach a compromise over the weekend.
Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, had criticized the General Assembly’s budget for not featuring enough cuts, and for its dependency on an additional $26 million in tax revenues. He also argued the Legislature’s budget was overly reliant on federal stimulus money to plug holes and that it did not do enough to promote economic development, nor address looming deficits in the state’s pension and unemployment funds.
“There were no winners yesterday; the people of Vermont are the ones who lost yesterday,” Douglas administration spokeswoman Dennise Casey said Wednesday morning. “This budget raises $26 million in new taxes so the Legislature can increase spending by 3.3 percent.”
Legislators, meanwhile, countered that Douglas’s budget figured to dismantle some state programs that provide critical help to the needy — particularly in a tough economy. They argued they had already made $80 million in cuts in programs and services to the proposed budget to compensate for tanking revenues brought on by the sagging economy. Moreover, they claimed Douglas’s proposed budget would place more of a burden on Vermonters’ property taxpayers because it would have shifted — from the general fund to the education fund — responsibility for maintaining the teachers retirement fund.
It’s a move they argued would have added millions of dollars to Vermonters’ property tax bills.
Local House members said they were not gloating about the override victory after the votes were counted early Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s hard to call it a victory, but it does move us forward,” said Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton. “This doesn’t eliminate our fiscal challenge moving on from here.”
Indeed, lawmakers expect to have to contend with another substantial revenue shortfall when they set to work devising a fiscal year 2011 budget. That work is expected to begin this summer.
“We are still fully committed to working with the administration to solve this problem,” Jewett added.
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, found himself voting in favor of the override even though he had strong reservations about the budget. But unlike Douglas, Fisher believed the spending plan featured too many cuts, not too few.
“It is a little bit of a bittersweet success for me,” he said. “It is always difficult when you can’t find an agreement with the administration.”
Still, Fisher said he believes legislative negotiators did what they could to reach a compromise with Douglas. And while not everyone left the special session happy, Fisher believes the state, as a whole, emerged as a winner.
“Vermont has a budget, and that is a huge relief going forward,” Fisher said.
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, agreed that the Legislature moved as much as it felt it could in trying to meet the governor’s budget requests.
“(Ours) is a good budget and it helps put the money where it is most needed,” Nuovo said.
SECOND VETO OVERRIDE
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, noted the 2009 Legislature has now cast two historic veto override votes — the first dealing with same-sex marriage, the second addressing the budget.
“It feels really strange to be a part of history,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, credited House and Senate budget writers for doing their homework in a fashion that helped maintain enough voters to pass Tuesday’s override.
“The going certainly got tough with the override veto,” Sharpe said. “It is not a road we wanted to go down.”
Sharpe acknowledged that the Legislature’s budget was not perfect, but said it proved more palatable to him that the governor’s alternative.
“There were no good answers,” Sharpe said. “This was the best effort among bad answers.”
It was indeed an eventful freshman year for Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes. Lanpher cast votes — in favor — on both override measures this year.
“I believe (the Legislature’s) budget achieved a compromise by keeping the tax burden as low as possible while at the same time providing the basic services we want to provide to our citizens,” Lanpher said.
As one of the House’s three independents, Stevens’s vote was actively courted by both the Douglas administration and Democratic leaders. Stevens had voted against the General Assembly’s budget on the first go-around, and ended up sticking with that position — albeit with a different rationale. He explained he voted on Tuesday against the override as a means of promoting renewed dialogue between the two sides on a possible budget compromise.
“I feel as though when people stop talking, we are done,” Stevens said. “And frankly, it was not a vote to carry water for the governor.”
Stevens said he remained uncertain about his vote right up until the override roll call.
“For me, it was a choice between bad and worse,” he said of the options that lay before him. “But at the end of the day, it came down to a vote for hope and continued dialogue that could result in something better.”
Tuesday’s override vote was not as suspenseful in the Senate, where the vote was 23-5 in favor of the measure. Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, and Harold Giard, D-Bridport, both voted in favor of the override.
Ayer, vice chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee and Senate majority whip, said she was pleased the state now has a budget and will be able to turn its attention to other, related financial issues — such as making sure the state’s unemployment insurance and retirement funds return to a path to solvency.
“(Having an approved budget) gives us that breathing space to make logical decisions,” Ayer said.
Some of those decisions were scheduled to be made as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday. Among them: A budget “companion” bill designed to address, among other things, Douglas’s concerns about the a deficit in the state’s unemployment fund.
“I think we are headed to an agreement,” Ayer said on Tuesday of the companion bill.
Casey said that Douglas believes elements of the companion bill should have been in the main budget.
“They are going to charge Vermonters an extra $56,000 to correct a flawed budget,” she said of the cost of convening the General Assembly for a day.
Casey pointed to estimates from the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office showing potential revenue shortfalls of $67 million in fiscal year 2011 and $141 million in 2012 in wake of the fiscal year 2010 spending plan affirmed on Tuesday.