Inside the Golden Bubble: Senate backlog could push end of session to May 4
by Anne Galloway vtdigger.org If the bottleneck in the Senate doesn’t break soon, observers say, many House members could be twiddling their thumbs next week… and maybe even the week after that.
Suffice it to say, an April 27 adjournment, House Speaker Shap Smith’s ostensible goal, is looking overly optimistic even though the House will largely be finished with its work this week.
Statehouse mavens — lobbyists, advocates, lawmakers and the like — say the 250-page Senate calendar that came out on Tuesday is a sign that the Green Room has so many must-pass bills left to approve it’ll be awhile before lawmakers bid adieu to Montpelier.
A good sign? The money bills are piling up. The budget legislation, now ready to go in Senate Appropriations, can’t move until Senate Finance finishes reviewing the tax bill. Once the Big Bill leaves committee, it typically takes two weeks to go through the final approval process on the Senate floor before it goes to the committee of conference. (See the Clerk of the House analysis of Appropriations bills.)
When asked by House colleagues whether the adjournment date had changed, House Majority Leader Lucy Leriche told the Democratic caucus: “I think that’s more a question for the (Senate) president pro tem.”
“If you start doing the math and count backwards, you might come to your own conclusions,” Leriche said.
The math is complicated. The Senate has passed a large number of bills — more than 70 — the problem is the most controversial legislation has been left to the bitter end and the result could be an interesting series of sideshows on the road to adjournment.
Several of the money bills — capital budget adjustment, the transportation bill — moved on Tuesday with little difficulty. Though neither of these nor the budget and tax bills appear to be particularly controversial, there will likely be plenty of other Green Room bills that spark disagreements along the way that could slow down the process.
Once key legislation is approved by the Senate, a number of bills (about 12) will go to a committee of conference where House members and senators will work out major and minor differences on issues like the philosophical exemption for immunizations (Senate for, House against) and prescription drug monitoring (the Senate dropped the warrant provision), along with the must-pass legislation, such as redistricting, and budget and tax bills.
Several critics are blaming Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell for what they describe as a “dysfunctional Senate,” and they wonder aloud whether senators will have the capacity to get along well enough to get through the difficult legislation that remains.
“Shap can control the House,” one disgruntled lobbyist said. “The real problem is the Senate. How do you get the whole process through when you’re not in charge?”
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said the Speaker’s April 27 deadline was unrealistic from the start. At this point, short of working around the clock, he said it wasn’t possible to hit that end date. In the last decade, adjournments in the first week of May have been considered early, he said.
As for Campbell’s performance as president pro tem, Mullin said: “I don’t think anyone — given the cast of characters in the Senate — could do any better than he’s doing. He’s doing an admirable job.”
The Senate has a handful of newbies who have been very outspoken, despite their inexperience in the Green Room.
“We have freshmen that in many respects are more than freshmen,” Mullin said. “They have had long careers in the House, including two former House Appropriations chairs, and we have a former ambassador. These aren’t shrinking violets, and they’re not going to just be seen and not heard. It’s a good thing. That’s what democracy is all about.”
Campbell, he said, is the first new president pro tem in many years. The Senate was previously run by Gov. Peter Shumlin and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, both of whom had long experience as leaders in the Green Room.
Others say the negotiations between the 30 senators can be much more personal than the back-and-forth between members in the much larger House, which operates on a chairs-are-in-charge, chain-of-command basis, thanks to the Speaker’s widely touted, disciplined approach.
Add a number of large personalities to the mix of senators — former Progressive candidate for governor Anthony Pollina, attorney Joe Benning, former ambassador Peter Galbraith, former House Appropriations chair Sally Fox (who is recovering from lung surgery), UVM professor Philip Baruth — not to mention a candidate for governor, Republican Randy Brock, and you’ve got a volatile combination of heavy hitters who have their own ideas about legislation, regardless of who is in charge.
Sometimes, it’s a recipe for open conflict. Over the weekend, Sen. Hinda Miller, D-Chittenden, penned an op-ed for the Burlington Free Press that accused Sen. Dick Sears of bullying her during the emotional debate over the “patient-directed death” amendment that failed to pass on the Senate floor last week.Sen. Peter Galbraith, in remarks on Tuesday to his colleagues, indirectly chastised Miller. “The Senate works better if we avoid ad hominem remarks to the press,” Galbraith said.
Expect to see more ruffled feathers as the Senate figures out how to reach the end game.
Here are a few of the bills that remain unresolved:
- The tax on cloud computing and a two-cent increase in the statewide property tax will likely be controversial items that Sen. Ann Cummings describes as “hanging out there.”
- The budget, once a tax bill is in play from Senate Finance and the Big Bill is approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, likely at the end of this week, it will take a day to print. Then it will take two days to pass on the floor before it goes to conference committee.
- The Senate has its own version of the House redistricting map, which leaves Burlington untouched (a matter of some dispute in the House) and includes changes to three House districts in Bennington County and an adjustment to the Hinesburg district, according to Sen. Jeanette White, chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee. The proposal from Sens. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, and Dick Sears, D-Bennington, has a standard deviation of 24 percent, which White deemed “exceptionally high.” The Vermont GOP has threatened to sue over any deviation level over 18 percent; the House map has a deviation rate of 18.29 percent, which White says is defensible because it takes into account existing political lines, contiguous communities. The Senate map broadens the Essex-Orleans Senate district, and largely leaves the other districts in tact, White said.
- The energy bill, which sets an ambitious target of 75 percent renewable power by 2032 for the state, hit a roadblock last week when three senators on Senate Natural Resources rejected the legislation. Sen. Mark MacDonald voted against the bill because it included a carveout for IBM, the state’s largest energy user.
- Meanwhile, the childcare unionization bill, which was attached to a workers’ compensation measure and was supposed to be taken up on Tuesday, is unlikely to survive in the Senate, thanks to President Pro Tem John Campbell’s antipathy toward the tactics employed by the American Federation of Teachers.
- Three Natural Resource Committee members have added two amendments to the bottle bill. One would extend the current bottle-redemption law to plastic water bottles and other containers now exempt. The other would ban plastic grocery bags. The committee is divided on the issue. If the bill becomes law, every Vermont household will have to divide its trash into three parts – regular, recyclable and organic – by 2020 (in the bill as passed by the House) or 2018 (in the current Senate version).
- A legislative directive regarding the CVPS, Green Mountain Power merger could be a wild card if the Senate, with the backing of Campbell, decides to press the issue. The House is currently taking testimony on the matter, but Smith has said he doesn’t support legislation that would interfere in the case, which is now before the Public Service Board.
April 18, 2012 vtdigger.org Photo top: Senator Peter Galbraith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, VTD/Josh Larkin. Inside the Golden Bubble is an occasional VTDigger column about the Legislature.