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Legislators override Gov. Scott 6 times

MONTPELIER — Last June, Vermont’s Democratic Legislature overrode a record five vetoes in a single day.

On Monday, they one-upped themselves — but with an unexpected stumble. By 5:34 p.m., both chambers had adjourned, having overridden six vetoes. Another — of H.121, a sweeping data privacy bill — was ultimately sustained by the Senate. 

The House and Senate on Monday gaveled in for one day, colloquially referred to as a veto session, for the chance to override seven of the eight vetoes Republican Gov. Phil Scott issued this year. They had previously decided not to take up a vetoed bill banning the sale of flavored e-liquids and nicotine products. (Last year, the Legislature also overrode a total of six of Scott vetoes, but only five of them came in a single day.)

To override a gubernatorial veto requires a two-thirds vote of members present. In theory, Democrats have veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. But in practice, party affiliation, on its own, is not always indicative of how a member will vote on the question of whether to override the governor’s will.

That proved to be the case on Monday. The road to overriding one veto was particularly bumpy: The Senate ultimately made three attempts to override H.72 — a bill allowing for the establishment of an overdose prevention site in Burlington — before the chamber finally succeeded at about 4:15 p.m.

With H.72 having been a major priority of Democrats this session, the Senate’s initial failure to override Scott’s veto led to shock and tears in the chamber Monday morning. Moments after the first vote, the bill’s proponents gathered in a tight circle outside the Senate chamber, strategizing to find a way to revive the bill before lawmakers adjourned for the summer.

When all was said and done, the bill was salvaged thanks to Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, who initially voted to sustain Scott’s veto Monday morning. By that afternoon, he made a special request to change his vote, and the veto was ultimately overridden by a 20-9 vote.

Also on Monday, lawmakers in both chambers overrode Scott’s veto of H.887, the state’s yield bill, which sets an average property tax rate for the year in order to fund Vermont’s public education system. With their votes, lawmakers ignored Scott’s recent pleas to further buy down this year’s projected average property tax increase of 13.8% — a proposal that legislative leaders dismissed last week as “fiscally irresponsible.”

Legislators on Monday also overrode a slate of vetoes on environmental bills from this legislative session: Votes in favor of H.687, a bill reforming Vermont’s decades-old land use law, Act 250, prevailed. Scott’s veto of H.706, a bill that bans seeds treated with a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which harm pollinators, was overridden in both chambers. And H.289, a bill establishing a renewable energy standard, will take effect after the House and Senate voted to override Scott’s veto.

Lawmakers also voted to override Scott’s veto of H.645, a bill proponents say would ensure people have equitable access to restorative justice programs across the state. The legislation sets out baseline standards for county prosecutors to follow when deciding whether someone who commits a relatively minor crime should be referred to a restorative justice program in their community, instead of being charged in court.

The bill also moves oversight of these “pre-charge diversion” programs from the state Department of Corrections to the office of Attorney General Charity Clark. Scott’s veto hinged on a lack of funding in the bill for an additional position in Clark’s office to carry out that work.

But Clark pushed back on the governor’s reasoning earlier this month, saying that her office already had the resources to start fulfilling the bill’s requirements this year. 

Speaking on the House floor Monday in support of overriding Scott’s veto, Rep. Martin LaLonde, a South Burlington Democrat who chairs that chamber’s judiciary committee, echoed Clark’s comments and called the veto “a fundamental misunderstanding.” 

The House voted to override Scott’s veto of the restorative justice bill 110 to 35, while the Senate later overrode it by a narrow 21-8 vote.

Garnering the longest floor debate on Monday by far was lawmakers’ consideration of whether to override Scott’s veto of H.121, the data privacy bill. It also included provisions that would have compelled social media platforms to alter their algorithms for users under 18 years old, with the goal of addressing social media’s mental health impacts on children.

The House quickly and decisively voted to override the veto, by a 128-17 vote. But in the Senate, members debated the merits of the bill — and whether it could wait until next year — for nearly an hour before 15 senators ultimately voted to sustain the veto, and 14 voted in favor of the bill.

That hour-long debate was despite the fact that the votes had already been counted ahead of Monday’s session. In an email Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D/P-Chittenden Southeast, sent to legislative colleagues Sunday night, she wrote that the chamber didn’t have the votes to override the veto.

“(W)e would still not have 20 votes in the Senate regardless of everyone maintaining their vote from May because of the loss of Senator Sears,” Ram Hinsdale wrote in the email, referring to the death earlier this month of Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. “Beyond that, we have lost seven additional votes as senators have had more time post-session to consider the impact of the (private right of action) on Vermont-based businesses, non-profits, medical facilities, educational institutions, utilities and employers.”

The bill didn’t go down without a fight. Ram Hinsdale and other senators noted that many of the bill’s effective dates were years in the distance, even if it had prevailed. But several senators said Vermont couldn’t wait until next session to pass the bill.

“I have never felt so much urgency to pass a bill,” Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, said during Monday’s floor debate.

Lawmakers’ work was not limited to overrides Monday. They also granted approval to three other bills that hadn’t made it across the finish line before the end of the regular legislative session last month.

The Senate gave its final signoff to H.55, a bill that makes a number of changes to Vermont’s employment laws and includes a provision pushed by state Treasurer Mike Pieciak to pilot a state-managed trust fund for Vermont children born on Medicaid. The House previously approved the bill on the final day of the regular session. Notably, the legislation does not deposit any state funds into the program, as the treasurer had originally proposed. 

Other measures in H.55 provide worker’s compensation coverage for certain state employees who are recovering from post traumatic stress disorder and call for a new study on cancer rates among Vermont firefighters, among other provisions.

The House also approved H.81, a bill that requires manufacturers of agricultural equipment to provide the resources and property rights necessary to farmers and independent mechanics to independently repair their equipment. And H.890, a bill that delays for a year the implementation of one of several newly created health insurance claim processing requirements, was also greenlit. The legislation was introduced for the first time Monday morning through a special House rules process.

Lawmakers said the bill came at the request of health insurance providers, which they said needed more time to meet some of the requirements laid out in legislation Scott signed into law just last month: Act 111.

Two of those three bills will now head to the governor’s desk. H.81, having been once again amended by the House on Monday afternoon, has stalled for the year.

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