Late deals clear the way for legislative gavel
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | May 15,2013
Toby Talbot / AP Photo
House Speaker Shap Smith, left, confers with Rep. Janet Ancel, center, next to Sen. John Campbell during a meeting on what was expected to be the final day of the legislative session Tuesday.
MONTPELIER — Eleventh-hour negotiations on education funding, taxes, health care and a fee bill made for a frenetic day in Montpelier as the Vermont Legislature worked late into the night on what would be the final day of the 2013 legislative session.
As of 9 p.m. Tuesday, the House had yet to give final approval to a $5.2 billion budget that would be its last order of business before the fall of the final gavel. But lawmakers were poised to celebrate a late-night adjournment that would be capped with a speech in the House chamber from Gov. Peter Shumlin.
The no-new-taxes pledge to which Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell agreed last week made for some late-session budget reductions that pared the increase in the general fund to just 4 percent.
Comparing it against the 5.8 percent general fund increase Shumlin proposed in January, many Republican lawmakers said Tuesday the 2014 spending plan should be considered a victory for fiscal conservatives.
“You never get everything you want on the budget,” said Rep. Tom Koch, a Barre Republican. “But it has moved immensely from where it was to what we asked for.”
If Democrats showed restraint on spending, they were more willing to flex their single-party rule on social issues. The last two days in Montpelier featured final votes on the slate of social reforms that came to define the first half of the biennium.
From marijuana decriminalization and driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants to end-of-life choices and the legalization of hemp, the Democratic super-majority saved its might for the social arena.
“To me this was a blockbuster year,” said Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth. “A number of these things we weren’t even able to have a debate on last year.”
Frazzled lawmakers spent Tuesday waging last-gasp efforts to push their pet bills over the finish line before time expired. Rep. David Sharpe, a Bristol Democrat, watched his legislative baby — a piece of education funding reform legislation — die and come back to life numerous times, often within the span of an hour, before finally winning an agreement that saved at least a portion of the bill.
The bill’s most significant provision would lower the threshold at which school districts will suffer financial penalties for “excess spending.”
After raising the statewide property tax rate by 5 cents earlier this year, Sharpe said, “we felt an obligation to do something with regard to suppressing spending.”
“To go home without doing something about education spending is not acceptable to me, and I think many others in this building,” Sharpe said.
A bill that would have required school districts to provide at least 10 hours a week of free schooling to 3- and 4-year-old children was less successful, though proponents of “universal pre-K” say they’ll pick up the fight next year.
Perhaps the highest-profile defeat Tuesday came when House and Senate lawmakers announced they had thrown in the towel on campaign finance reform legislation. The Legislature’s failure to act this year, according to Secretary of State Jim Condos, means “the public will have less opportunity for transparency and accountability in our elections.”
Another fierce negotiation came in the “technical tax bill,” where leaders in the House and Senate jockeyed for provisions prized by their respective bodies. The most significant change came on what has come to be known as the cloud tax.
The Shumlin administration had until Tuesday looked to have won its fight to impose a moratorium on the tax on remotely accessed software. Legislators at the last minute decided to withdraw that exemption and will expose those software transactions to a 6 percent tax expected to raise $2.3 million next year.