Vote to overcome paid-leave veto fails

It was heart-wrenching because I really did want a paid family plan.
— Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset

MONTPELIER — Democrats in the Vermont House fell one vote short in their attempt to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of a paid family leave program on Wednesday.
In a major loss for the majority party, which has made passing a mandatory paid family leave program a priority in recent years, the House voted 99-51 in favor of overriding the veto — one away from the 100 needed to pass the bill into law.
Earlier last week, Progressive lawmakers who previously opposed the measure because it didn’t offer strong enough benefits, vowed to aid Democrats and vote to override the veto.
But their votes weren’t enough, as leaders of the House struggled to win over enough support from members of their own party to keep the legislation, H.107, alive.
All of the Democratic members of the delegation from Addison County voted to override. The other two House members from Addison County — Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, and Rep. Terry Norris, I-Shoreham — voted against override.
Explaining why Wednesday’s override vote failed, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, pointed to the “very small number of Democrats and independents” that voted against the measure.
She said that these lawmakers are “not reflecting what Vermonters as a whole are interested in,” and that voters should take that into account when they consider whether to reelect them later this year.
“We talk about having policies to help support a workforce, support aging Vermonters and to bring young people back to Vermont,” Johnson said.
“And in November, voters will have a choice to see who has taken every step they can to help build those policies that will create a stronger, healthier future for the state,” she added.
The program would have offered workers 12 weeks off of work per year to care for a newborn child, and eight weeks to care for an ailing family member.
Four Democrats, four independents and the entire Republican caucus ended up opposing the override, despite some eleventh-hour pitches on Wednesday to convince moderate members to change their minds. 
Up until the roll call began, neither Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-West Dover, nor Johnson could be found on the floor. They were both in Johnson’s office as the speaker made a final attempt to win Sibilia’s support.
But Sibilia voted no. She said she couldn’t vote in favor of the paid leave bill when the Legislature hasn’t prioritized a fix to the state’s health care system — the number one priority of her constituents.
Sibilia said she would support a payroll tax to lower health care costs in the state, but not a payroll tax for a paid leave program.
“We have a problem that we haven’t fixed yet,” she said.
Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, who voted against the bill, said she couldn’t support the override because the paid leave program would require employees working jobs that make less than $7,400 to pay into the insurance pool, but not allow them to use the benefits.
She also said she had concerns that the Democrats’ proposal would be duplicative of governor’s voluntary paid leave program, which he included in his administration’s bargaining agreement with state employees for 2021 — perhaps leading to Vermonters paying into two programs simultaneously.
“It was heart-wrenching because I really did want a paid family plan,” Sullivan said.
While most Democrats who voted against the paid leave override did so because they believe the program would be too costly, one Democrat, Rep. Randall Szott of Barnard, opposed it because he believes the legislation isn’t robust enough.
Szott complained the paid leave program wouldn’t allow for workers to take time off for personal medical issues, unless they volunteered to pay extra temporary disability insurance.
However, unlike the Progressives, who voted against the bill on the House floor last month but then supported the override, Szott opposed the legislation Wednesday.
“They didn’t listen. I told them they didn’t have the votes, and they didn’t listen,” Szott said of Democratic leadership.
“I feel it was the right result,” he said when asked about his vote. “Sometimes you have to make hard choices. That’s what I got elected for.”
Sen. President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, called Szott’s vote on the override a “great frustration.”
“It is disappointing, especially with at least one legislator who believes that if things aren’t precisely the way he wanted then that isn’t good enough,” Ashe said. “And that’s not how major legislation is passed.”

Wednesday’s vote was the first time Democrats in the House have attempted to override a Scott veto since the 2018 election bolstered their numbers in the Statehouse.
That year, Democrats won what some party members have called “supermajority” or “super coalition,” with 95 Democrats, some left-leaning independents, and seven Progressives in the lower chamber.
But for the majority party, wielding the supermajority hasn’t been easy. Democrats don’t have a unified view on all issues — particularly when it comes to what the party has deemed to be its economic priorities: paid family leave and a significant increase to the minimum wage.
Many moderate Democrats from more rural parts of the state share the concerns of Republicans and the governor: that the programs are too expensive for the state, or would burden small businesses.
The last time the party successfully overrode a veto was in 2009, when Shap Smith, a Democrat from Morrisville, was speaker of the House. That year, Democrats overrode then-Gov. Jim Douglas’ vetoes of a state budget and Vermont’s landmark same-sex marriage bill.
Scott vetoed the paid family leave bill late in January because it would be funded by a $29 million payroll tax that would fall on workers, unless employers volunteered to offer the benefit.
The governor says he is supportive of paid family leave, as long as it isn’t mandated for all workers to take part in the program.
Scott has pitched his own voluntary paid family leave program, which has been included in the administration’s contract with unionized state employees, and could move forward this year. The administration is now searching for a private insurance company that could administer the benefit.
Under Scott’s plan, Vermont’s 8,500 state employees would receive six weeks of paid leave, forming an insurance pool that other businesses and employees could join voluntarily.
After Wednesday’s override vote, Republicans said they looked forward to advancing the governor’s paid leave plan.
“I think the whole House would like to see some sort of paid family leave but realized you have to do the voluntary one because people just cannot afford any more taxes,” said House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney.
Johnson, who has opposed a voluntary paid leave plan because she worries it would not garner enough participation from workers and employers to make it affordable, called the governor’s proposal “anemic.”
“I think the governor’s plan is fine for just the state employees and does nothing to support families, build a workforce and attract new people to Vermont,” she said Wednesday.
Ashe and Johnson said that Democrats won’t give up their push to enact a mandatory paid family leave program, but suggested that bringing forward additional legislation this year probably isn’t in the cards.
 “I don’t know what the next step is, but it’s not an issue that is going to go away,” Ashe said.
Grace Elletson and John Walters contributed reporting.

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