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Legislature finishes productive season

MONTPELIER — With their approval of an $8.5 billion budget and the fall of the gavel last Friday at 8:23 p.m. and 11:31 p.m., respectively, the Vermont Senate and House adjourned for the final day of the 2023 legislative session.

In January, state lawmakers kicked off their first fully in-person legislative session since the COVID-19 pandemic sent them home in 2020. With a new biennium came a fresh crop of lawmakers; altered political dynamics between the House, Senate and Governor’s Office; a historic Democratic supermajority in both chambers; and a litany of major policy decisions — some solidified only after intense debate.

Roughly one-third of this year’s legislators were newly elected as of November, marking historic turnover. Along with a new class of lawmakers came a new set of priorities.

In his adjournment speech, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, offered his shortlist of the year’s top priorities: patching up the state’s beleaguered child care system, working to ease its chronic housing shortage, taking steps to lower carbon emissions and tackling the issue of gun violence.

His tone celebratory in the chamber Friday night, Baruth said he felt the Senate checked every box. 

“We stretched to the maximum in all four of those areas,” he told VTDigger following the final fall of the gavel. “We have never passed as much gun safety legislation in one year. In terms of childcare, it was a historic expansion, to the tune of $125 million a year. Housing, we made more changes, and more productive changes, to the development rules, regulations, and Act 250 than I think has been done in many, many years.”

And referring to the Legislature’s successful vote to override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the Affordable Heat Act, Baruth said, “In terms of climate, we held our 20 votes in the Senate and we had over 100 in the House, and we overrode the governor during the normal session.

“So, it’s hard for me to imagine how we would have done much more,” he concluded.

In her own adjournment speech later Friday, House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, pointed to what she considered another major accomplishment of the 2023 session: lawmakers’ passage, and the governor’s signature of, two landmark reproductive “shield laws” protecting access to abortion and gender-affirming care within state lines.

“Last year, our nation witnessed the overturning of Roe v. Wade, erasing 50 years of precedent,” Krowinski said. “As some states decided to become more hostile to reproductive and gender-affirming care, we have stood firmly in defense of these rights, and passed additional legislation this session to protect Vermonters and those seeking care in our state and those providers to make sure that they have no harm. We want to ensure that we continue to be a beacon of hope when it comes to autonomy and the freedom to make our own health care decisions.”

Despite comparable political party breakdowns in the respective chambers, new Senate leadership brought new working dynamics between the upper chamber and the House, which shaped the Statehouse policy priorities. Baruth, while not new to the Senate, was new to his role as the chamber’s top dog, replacing now-U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt.

In the final days of the session, tensions rose between the two bodies. They agreed on a childcare package and a price tag, but disagreed vehemently on a funding mechanism. The impasse broke just days before the session concluded, and the Senate’s wishes prevailed.

And while the House named paid family leave as a top priority, the Senate was lukewarm on the idea from the start. Ultimately, the initiative faltered. 

Asked to describe his working relationship with Krowinski on Friday night, Baruth said it has “gotten better” as the legislative session progressed.

“Toward the end of the session, things get tight, and you’re each working for your side,” he said. “I think of it like lawyers. You’re representing your client, your position, and you mix it up in the courtroom. But that doesn’t mean you’re not friends overall. That’s how I view us: as friends who, in the end game, need to each defend our chambers’ values.”

REPUBLICAN GOVERNOR

Also shaping the tone and tenor of the 2023 legislative session was the Legislature’s relationship with Scott, a Republican. Democratic lawmakers in November secured a historic, veto-proof supermajority in both the House and Senate. With the numbers on their side, Democratic leaders were emboldened to take on legislative priorities they knew the governor would find unfavorable.

Scott hinted at those dynamics in his own adjournment speech Friday night, saying that government “should work” with good faith negotiation between disagreeing parties — “or, as appears to be the case this year, agree to disagree in some areas.”

He also harkened back to November’s election, reminding lawmakers that, in addition to installing a Democratic supermajority, Vermonters re-elected him by his widest margins to date.

“Every single one of your towns elected me and you, because they want balance,” Scott said. “They wanted sustainable solutions at a price they can afford. And it’s not as though we disagree on the goals — it’s the how, and the pace at which we get there. That’s where there’s division.”

The political sparring — particularly between the Scott administration and the House — reached a fever pitch as the Legislature put a bow on S.5, the Affordable Heat Act. By far the most hotly debated and consequential piece of climate legislation of the year, Scott attempted to strike it down with his veto pen in the final weeks of the session, citing concerns that the bill could eventually increase the cost of home heating fuel on everyday Vermonters. Scott’s veto was ultimately overridden by a comfortable margin in the House, and a tight vote in the Senate.

An annual tradition, the two branches of government also disagreed sharply on the state’s so-called Big Bill, or annual budget. Having already hinted at an impending gubernatorial veto, Scott on Friday scolded legislators for raising additional taxes and fees on Vermonters at a time when “we’ve got to make Vermont more affordable.”

“With high inflation and the looming economic storm clouds on the horizon, Vermonters are nervous, and already overburdened,” Scott said. “To be clear, taking money out of one pocket to put into the other — that’s not making anything more affordable. Right now, it appears this is an area where we may disagree.”

Disagreement over the budget this year was not limited to Scott and legislators. In the final weeks, tensions mounted, particularly within the House, on top budgeters’ decision to cease Vermont’s emergency housing program, by which people experiencing homelessness are sheltered in hotels and motels paid for by the state. Budgeters, as well as Scott’s administration, reasoned that the program was always meant to be temporary, and one-time federal dollars that poured into the state to pay for the program in recent years had dried up. Once the program ceases, this summer, thousands of Vermonters, including hundreds of children, are expected to be evicted from their emergency shelter.

In a last-minute organizing effort to get across their moral objections to ending the program, House Progressives and a significant number of Democrats broke from their caucus, joining Republicans in voting no on the state budget. The final vote count Friday night was 90-53 — notably, not a veto-proof majority, should it hold steady come June’s scheduled veto session.

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