December 21, 2018

Vermont Legislative Preview 12-21-2018

An analysis from DRM's Government & Public Affairs Team

Does supermajority convey superpowers?

The Vermont legislature convenes on January 9 with Democrats (combined with Progressives) holding their largest majority in history. The Democrats’ big numbers – 102 out of 150 seats in the House (including seven Progressives), and 24 out of 30 in the Senate – create great anticipation for some and dread for others.

But has too much been made of the Democrats’ supermajority status?

The Democrats’ legislative grip is not far from the hold the party has had on the legislature for the last dozen years. In 2011, for example, the party held 99 House and 22 Senate seats, and that was with a Democratic governor. Democrats held a similar majority while Republican Gov. Jim Douglas was in office. While the state has clearly drifted left over the last decade, no radical policy changes have been enacted. That trend is likely to continue for the 2019-20 session.

Most Vermont bills are hashed out in committee on a bipartisan basis. Unlike Congress, where party membership seems to drive all decisions, Vermont lawmakers are, for the most part, pragmatic problem solvers. While the 14 bills that Gov. Phil Scott vetoed in the last session clearly reflected Democratic priorities, few proposed dramatic new policy initiatives.

The same is likely to be true in the upcoming session. Democrats will likely find it difficult to overturn vetoes on issues that don’t have substantial voter support. A carbon tax, for example, probably has the support of most Democratic lawmakers, but without greater enthusiasm by the public it is doubtful that a bill will pass, much less become law after a certain gubernatorial veto. The supermajority will matter most on perennial big-ticket Democratic priorities like a minimum wage increase, paid family leave and the budget.  

The legislature has a weighty list of other issues that are likely to be considered, including:

  • Water quality funding;
  • Act 250 reform;
  • Chemical regulation and strict liability;
  • Workforce development;
  • School consolidation;
  • Access to childcare; and
  • Marijuana legalization.

The collective personality of the 40 members of the incoming freshman legislative class may determine how the legislature addresses these and other issues. That class is larger than most, but not by much. They are younger than the body as a whole, which last year had an average age of 61 – the third oldest in the country. By contrast, six new members are under the age of 25.

Another uncertainty is the number of vacant House committee chairmanships. Five committees with far-reaching jurisdiction will have new leaders: Commerce; Education; Fish, Wildlife and Natural Resources; Energy and Technology; and General & Military Affairs. It will take time for these committees to organize and develop priorities.

Time is a commodity that is always in short supply. The legislature only meets for about 72 days, and its late start date this year – January 9 – means lawmakers will face even greater pressure to adjourn when May rolls around.

The Vermont Republican Party enters the session perhaps more dispirited than at any time in its history. With its fewest ever number of legislative seats, virtually no bench of potential statewide candidates, and an increasingly tarnished brand due to President Donald Trump, there is plenty of reason for despair.

In the short term, however, if House Republicans maintain their cohesion and attract a small handful of Democrats on key issues, their close alliance with Scott will keep Vermont from veering too far outside of the path it’s taken over the last dozen years.


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