Op/Ed

Eric Davis: Legislature sets bellwether vote

After the Legislature adjourned last spring, Gov. Scott vetoed the so-called medical monitoring bill. This bill was passed in response to an environmental crisis in the North Bennington area. Private wells located near the ChemFab factory were found to be contaminated with toxic PFOA chemicals, byproducts of the Teflon that was manufactured in the factory.
Exposure to PFOA has been associated with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, immune system effects, thyroid disease, and an increased risk of some types of cancer. The bill passed by the Legislature would have given individuals exposed to toxic substances such as PFOA the right to sue companies for the cost of monitoring medical conditions attributable to that exposure.
Gov. Scott vetoed the bill in response to concerns raised by attorneys and lobbyists representing business. They argued that the bill would increase businesses’ legal liability and lead to higher insurance premiums. As a result, the business representatives said, businesses would be less likely to expand in Vermont, or relocate to the state.
As Scott put it in his veto message, “If Vermont manufacturers and others cannot secure insurance or cover claims, then our economy will weaken, jobs will be lost, tax revenue will decline and, ultimately, all Vermonters lose.”
In an end-of-the-year press conference, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle) and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden) said they would schedule a vote to override the governor’s veto soon after the Legislature reconvenes next week. Whether the veto can be overridden will be a close call.
The medical monitoring bill passed the Senate by a vote of 19-11, one vote short of the two-thirds needed for a veto override. The House roll-call vote, with several members absent, was 100-42 in favor, 100 being the minimum needed to override when all members are present.
This veto override will be an important test vote in the House and Senate. In the three years that he has been governor, Scott has effectively used the veto, or the threat of a veto, to get his way with legislators.
On the surface, Democrats, Progressives and their Independent allies have a “super-majority” of more than two-thirds in both legislative chambers. In practice, the Democratic caucuses are so large, and include enough moderate and center-right members, that the governor has been able to obtain the support of enough centrist Democrats to prevent his vetoes from being overridden. Will this pattern repeat itself on the medical monitoring bill?
What happens on the medical monitoring override votes may influence the legislative leadership’s strategy on other bills that are high priorities for legislative Democrats: establishing a paid family leave program in Vermont, and raising the state’s minimum wage. No bills were passed on either of those subjects last year, in part because of disagreements among Democrats that resulted in an acrimonious adjournment in May, with the House and Senate going their separate ways at the end of the session.
However, key roll-calls on the minimum wage and family leave issues showed that the majorities in favor of those bills were not large enough to override the governor’s all-but-certain vetoes. In the House, there were 90 votes in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2026, at the earliest, and 92 votes in support of a paid family leave program. In the Senate, there were 19 votes in support of paid family leave, and between 19 and 22 in support of a higher minimum wage, depending on how much the wage would be raised and over how long a period.
If Johnson and Ashe cannot muster the support among their Democratic and Progressive colleagues to override Scott’s veto on the medical monitoring bill, it is unlikely that they would be able to put together veto-proof majorities on either the minimum wage or paid family leave bills in 2020.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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