Legislature Still in Session, Revenue Report Due Soon

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(Host) The Vermont Legislature failed to adjourn late Saturday night because of disagreements over the state budget and reapportionment, so lawmakers will be back in Montpelier this week. There’s a possibility that the session could be extended for days or perhaps weeks if new budget concerns emerge this week.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) When lawmakers came back to the Statehouse on Saturday, there was a sense that it might be the last day of the session. There were a number of outstanding issues to be decided: the budget, reapportionment, the transportation bill, the capital bill and a septic bill.

As some of these issues were settled in favor of the Senate Democrats, it was clear that the core base of the House Republican caucus was growing very unhappy. They had their lost fight to limit funds for the Champlain Flyer commuter rail project in Chittenden County, they were asked to support an larger increase in the state cigarette tax than they wanted to, they were unable to get the changes they wanted to the Champion land deal and they had serious concerns about new septic legislation.

Many members expressed the need to take a hard stand on the two remaining issues – the state budget for next year and reapportionment. The battle over redistricting had come down to this: Democrats wanted to move the town of Orange from Orange County into Caledonia County. The Republicans saw the effort as a way for the Democrats to enhance their chances of winning back this Senate seat and they argued strongly against the move.

At 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning, Randolph Republican Representative Steve Webster, who is a former senator from Orange County, marched into the Senate chamber to tell reporters that the Democrats were guilty of partisan politics. Bennington Senator Dick Sears, the lead negotiator for the Senate on reapportionment, defended his chamber’s position and challenged Webster in the hallway just outside the Senate chamber:

(Sears) “The Legislative Apportionment Board passed Orange out of Orange County. What part of that didn’t I understand?”

(Webster) “We had to make that bill partisan to start with because the senate had already said they were going to interfere with it. That’s the way the system works here.”

(Sears) “So then why didn’t we make it partisan when we passed our bill? Why did we not tear apart the Senate the way the House tore apart the House. Look at the partisanship in the House – you deny that you don’t even look at that. It’s easy to blame the Senate but you don’t look at what the partisanship in the House was on this.”

(Kinzel) One of the reasons legislative leaders wanted to adjourn this weekend is because a new revenue report will be released early this week that will show that the state is facing between a $15 to $25 million shortfall as this fiscal year comes to a close. This means that revenue projections for next year are too high and it could force budget negotiators to trim millions of dollars from next year’s budget. At a recent press conference Governor Howard Dean expressed concern about how this situation could unfold:

(Dean) “I just want to underline the problem here: this is not going to get better and for people who are saying, ‘Well we can’t cut this and we can’t cut that,’ well stick around until the fifth of June and see what you think you can’t cut and what you can cut.”

(Kinzel) It takes a suspension of its rules, which requires a three-quarters majority, in order for the Legislature to move bills quickly at this time of year. There are indications that these requests will be defeated, making it very uncertain when final action will come on the budget.

If budget negotiators decide to reopen their talks in light of the new revenue report, some lawmakers are predicting it could be weeks before the Legislature adjourns.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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