The final gavel falls on 2011 session; Shumlin praises lawmakers for advancing his agenda

first_imgby Anne Galloway, www.vtdigger.org(link is external) May 7, 2011  The gavel fell late Friday afternoon ‘ a week ahead of schedule ‘ on what Governor Peter Shumlin called ‘the most successful session that I have witnessed.’With much bonhomie, the House and Senate adjourned thier business for the first half of the biennium. Leadership congratulated their members on finishing a week earlier than scheduled. It was the first Friday adjournment in memory; typically sessions drag past the 16-week deadline and the gavel falls into the wee hours of a Saturday.This year, however, was different. In lots of ways.Shumlin set out a legislative agenda in January that the Democratic majority in the House and Senate followed nearly to a T. Because the governor served most recently as the Senate President Pro Tempore, he has strong working relationships with Sen. John Campbell, the new pro tem, and House Speaker Shap Smith. Though disputes erupted on the Senate floor, and there were intense debates in the House over the tax and health care bills, the disagreements between the three leaders were handled behind-the-scenes in closed door meetings. In contrast, during the Douglas administration, the governor and Statehouse leaders engaged in public fights over tax policy.The Democrats passed legislation that sets the stage for the fulfillment of the governor’s campaign promises ‘ his ambitious health care reform plan, renewable energy, telecommunications legislation and a tight budget with a very modest tax bill. The legislation passed with few alterations to the original templates set out by the Shumlin administration.Shumlin, in speeches to the House and Senate, gave Smith and Campbell credit for that achievement.Though members of the GOP and the Progressive parties often objected to elements of the legislation, they didn’t have the numbers in either the House or the Senate to amend or defeat bills. What influence they did exert was in committee.In his farewell address to representatives, Smith took care to emphasize his attempts to include tripartisan points of view, and he praised the four leaders of the House GOP and Progressive caucuses.‘The fact that we are going home today is a tribute to the four of you,’ Smith said.Smith led the House with an efficiency that, in the last several days of the session, seemed almost machine-like. With few exceptions, work in the House in the final week was confined to bills that would ultimately pass into law this year. In the last two days of the session, House and Senate conference committees met and committees of jurisdiction huddled to consider last-minute amendments to their bills, as the main body of representatives worked methodically on the floor, passing bills and sending them to the Senate or the governor.Martha Heath presenting the budget on the House floor. VTD/Josh Larkin‘We have passed a balanced budget for 2012,’ he said, ‘and done it (sic) without the rancor in many other places. We have dealt with difficult decisions with cordiality, sometimes some rancor, but largely by building consensus among the different views.’Lawmakers in the House and the Senate were both haunted by what Sen. Randy Brock, R-Grand Isle/Franklin County, dubbed another ‘Pete the Moose’ moment. (Last year a wildlife management policy designed to spare the life of a moose kept in captivity at a game farm was quietly inserted into the budget bill. The law had to be done-over this session.)In the interest of avoiding another hasty decision they might regret later, the Senate on Thursday sent a provision that would have enhanced public participation in environmental enforcement proceedings to the Judiciary Committee for further consideration.On the floor of the House on Friday, Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, didn’t want to be surprised again. After Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, presented the conference committee’s budget on the floor of the House, Olsen began by asking her to confirm that Pete the Moose was nowhere in this year’s budget. She confirmed it with a smile.The budget and tax bills were the most controversial pieces of legislation this session.The miscellaneous tax bill and the budget, which resolving a $176 million budget gap for fiscal year 2012 through $88 million in cuts, $60 million in one-time funding, $24 million in new taxes and $9 million in revenues. About $4 million of one-time money was put into the Agency of Human Services caseload reserve fund.In the waning hours of the session, the money bills were contentious in the Senate and continued to drive debate in the House. The Senate gave final confirmation of the budget and tax bills on Thursday morning after late night negotiations over a 38-cent hike in the cigarette tax per pack.On the House floor Friday, the budget passed overwhelmingly after objections were raised by several members. One of the nay votes was cast by Olsen, who objected to a $23 million permanent reduction in the transfers from the general fund to the education fund. He said that when the budget was discussed earlier in the year, he had understood the transfer reduction would be for this year only. Olsen regretted the increase in property taxes that school districts would need to make up for lost state funding. Heath replied that earlier discussions had not specified whether the reduction would be temporary or permanent, and that if school districts cut the $23 million dollars that they were asked to cut under Challenges for Change, no tax hike would be needed.Paul Poirier, I-Barre City, was stymied earlier this session when he introduced a bill to raise income taxes on the wealthiest 5 percent of Vermont residents. Friday afternoon, he wasn’t even allowed to talk about it. Poirier questioned Heath about the projected deficit in the following year’s budget, which she put at $70 million to $71 million.Poirier tried to ask what he said was a final question, ‘Would considering a progressive income tax thatâ ¦’ Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, cut Poirier off with a point of order, saying that the House was discussing the budget, not taxes, and for fiscal year 2012, not the following years. After a consultation at the Speaker’s podium, Poirier agreed to drop that line of questioning.Paul Poirier and David Deen discuss a point of order as Lucy Leriche watches. VTD/Josh Larkin‘Mr. Speaker, the budget before you reflects our difficult fiscal reality,’ Heath said. ‘With the dark clouds of the cuts at the federal level looming, and the reality of a slow economic recovery facing us, it is a responsible, balanced proposal that reserves money to help deal with the fiscal challenges ahead, meets the challenge of filling the projected $176 million budget gap, and at the same time, retains essential services for our citizens.’The health care reform bill, which sets up a process and a board for creating a single-payer style system, remained contentious to the end. In order to shepherd the bill through final passage earlier this week, lawmakers pulled an amendment that would have narrowly defined a Vermont resident. Activists said the provision would have excluded undocumented foreigners from the new Green Mountain Care system.Though most Democrats supported the health care bill with a few notable exceptions in the Senate, Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, and Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, it became the most partisan issue in the Statehouse this session.In the House, particularly, the vote was along strict party lines. In an atmosphere of mutual admiration and good feelings, how do you celebrate one of your proudest accomplishments when not one member of the minority party voted for it? In his farewell address, Smith gave the GOP a peace offering. He seized on a post-vote pledge by Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, that even though she had voted against the bill, she would collaborate to make the program a success.‘I believe that we have shown the way on health care,’ Smith said. ‘I know that we disagree about the bill, but what I want to say is I’and I believe the administration’will accept the invitation of the member from Northfield. Going forward, we will all work to ensure that we have as strong a process as possible so that we bring the cost of health care under control but also meet a goal that I believe we all share, although we may have different ways of getting there, and that is ensuring that all Vermonters have access to health care.’The declaration from the Speaker was met by a standing ovation’though some Republicans were slow to join in and appeared uncomfortable.Smith also highlighted a bill designed to reduce the number of repeat DUI offenders. When the law goes into effect, someone guilty of a second DUI, if tested with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.16 percent or higher, will face close to a no-tolerance policy of drinking and driving for the following three years. During that time, a BAC as low as 0.02 percent, instead of the usual 0.08 percent, will make them guilty of driving under the influence. In addition to the lower threshold for second-time convictions, the bill beefs up alcohol treatment programs for incarcerated offenders.Many of the legislators who praised the bill talked about the loss of people they knew who had been killed by someone driving after drinking. Emotions were running high, all in support of the bill. In an unusual move, majority leader Lucy Leriche, D-Hardwick, asked for a roll call vote. The time-consuming process of calling the roll of 150 House members is usually reserved for issues that are both significant and divisive, so that voters can hold individual legislators accountable in future election contests. But in this last roll call of the session, for several minutes, representative after representative called out ‘Aye’ in support of the bill, until it was declared passed, 138-0.Though Democratic leaders began the session calling for greater transparency in government, Smith did not single out their partial accomplishment on that front. A strengthened public records law passed earlier this week, but differences between the House and the Senate kept the legislature from passing a stronger open meetings law. When asked after adjournment, Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, declined to say exactly what the sticking points were, referring only to ‘a number of issues’ they could not resolve. She hopes to use the upcoming forums on transparency that Secretary of State Jim Condos is organizing as a listening tour on open meetings, and she hopes some of her committee members will join her.As part of the final ceremonies, leaders of all three parties took turns thanking each other and, by name, the staff who keep the Legislature and the building running.The Legislature adjourned until one of three dates: June 7 (if they need to assemble for a veto override vote), Oct. 18 (if the speaker and the president of the senate choose to call them together), or Jan. 3, 2012 Anne Galloway is editor of vtdigger.org Editor’s note: Carl Etnier contributed to this report. This story was updated at 7:32 a.m. May 7, 2011.last_img