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Vermont’s Democratic Supermajority Comes with Sky-High Expectations

Published: 11/10/2018 11:24:43 PM
Modified: 11/10/2018 11:25:04 PM

Rep. Don Turner won’t be making the commute from his home in Milton to the Statehouse this winter after deciding to seek higher office and not run for re-election. After Democrats picked up more seats on Tuesday, securing a supermajority in the House, the longtime House minority leader wondered whether it matters who shows up for the Republican Party.

“Realistically, there will be little negotiation, from my perspective,” said Turner, who made an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor this year. “It’s almost like the Republicans don’t even need to show up in a lot of cases.”

Democrats picked up 12 seats in Tuesday’s election, bringing their total count to 95. Add seven Progressive House members and a few left-leaning independents and the Democratic caucus is comfortably above the 100 votes needed to override vetoes from Gov. Phil Scott.

Republicans have 43 seats, not enough to do much of anything.

“The governor’s in a very difficult position,” Turner said. “Without the ability to sustain that veto, things are going to happen.”

The Republicans had 53 seats in the House this last biennium.

What those “things” are will be up to Democratic leaders, who no longer have the luxury of blaming an intransigent governor if they fail to pass bills implementing a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave and long-term lake cleanup financing. They also will be expected to come up with legislation on priority issues such as affordable health care and child care access.

“There’s gonna be a lineup of people who helped them who are going to expect a lot from them now,” said Patti Komline, a former representative and the Republican minority leader before Turner. And donors working on those issues will want a central role in implementation, she added.

A disconnect could quickly form between what supporters want and what lawmakers can deliver, she said. Komline recalled the failed effort to create a single-payer health system during the administration of former Gov. Peter Shumlin. The details can be deal breakers, Komline said.

“The ideologues don’t want to hear that, they don’t want to hear the details; it’s like nay-saying, but that’s where the challenge is as a legislator,” she said.

When it comes to issues like clean water funding, a supermajority doesn’t necessarily pave the way to a viable solution, according to David Deen, a Democrat who just retired after 30 years as a leading environmental voice in the House.

“Our caucus has been throughout the debate divided about potential sources, and I presume that there will be a spread of opinion,” he said of finding funding sources for the $25 million a year estimated to be needed for lake cleanup efforts required by a federal order.

Scott said during debates with Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist that he had ideas for funding clean water without creating a new tax or fee, but didn’t want to reveal his thoughts until the Legislature was in session for fear that any proposals would be dismissed out of hand.

The job of corralling the House Democratic caucus will fall to Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, who successfully passed a minimum wage and paid family leave bill before they were vetoed last year.

Rounding up the troops for a veto override was a tall task, said Shap Smith, a former Democratic speaker who presided over a supermajority during the administrations of Jim Douglas, a Republican, and Shumlin, a Democrat.

He said those outside the Statehouse often fail to grasp how difficult it can be to rally the numbers to secure a veto override, given the broad range of opinions and personalities within the caucus.

“I think the expectations change that you can do whatever you want and that’s just not the case,” he said. “Within the body, people recognize that. I think, outside of the body, advocates and others may think you have more ability to do something than you do.”

Smith shepherded two successful veto overrides during his time as speaker, both under Douglas — once over his veto of a gay marriage bill in 2009 and again after Douglas vetoed the budget later that year.

The override challenge is easier when the governor is from the other party, he said, and if it’s clear an override is coming the governor may just avoid the theatrics and let the bill pass into law.

However, sometimes the political pain is worth making the principled point, said Douglas, who clashed with the Legislature over his conservative views on marriage and government spending.

Douglas said Scott would need to make a greater effort to more constructively engage with the Legislature, but also deliver his message directly to the people when legislators aren’t playing ball.

“He needs to use the bully pulpit, and he’s certainly capable of doing that,” Douglas said. He recalled the start of a divided session when Peter Welch, now Vermont’s representative in the U.S. House, was the leader of the Vermont Senate.

“He said, ‘The same people who elected us elected the governor. Maybe they’re telling us we need to work together,’ ” Douglas recalled.

Scott expressed hope for a similar approach from Democratic leaders this year.

“In electing a governor of one party and legislature by another,” Scott said during his victory speech on Tuesday, “the message Vermonters have sent out us tonight is clear: Work together.”

“I’ll continue to try and represent Vermonters the best I can, but understanding the realities of what we face,” Scott said after his speech on his relationship with a strengthened Democratic Legislature.

“I think we’ll both have to change our approach,” Scott said, “because Vermonters expect that.”

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski said she hoped the governor would also take the election results to heart.

“What we learned from this election is there’s a lot of support for Democrats,” she said.

Krowinski, D-Burlington, said the party would meet for a pre-session caucus next month to decide on priorities for the months ahead. She said themes she heard while campaigning were the high cost and lack of transparency in health care, as well as concern about the Trump administration.

“The key element in how we work together and can be successful is around strong communications, transparency and continuing to be open to feedback and working together across party lines,” she said.

The weight of the expectations on party leadership to deliver, especially now that they have the numbers, will be passed down to members, said Douglas, the former governor.

“There will be lots of pressure on Democrats to toe the party line, no question about that,” he said. “We’ll see how they react to it.”

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