Democratic supermajority won’t guarantee veto overrides, Vermont Statehouse leaders say
Lawmakers will have to navigate some dicey policy issues in the upcoming legislative session, such as child care, housing and climate legislation. But with about 60 new members entering the Legislature, they’ll also be dealing with some tricky social dynamics.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski and incoming Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth will be responsible for helping lawmakers acclimate to the new legislative environment.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld about how they plan to approach the job. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Pete, Senate Democrats have tapped Phil Baruth to succeed outgoing President Pro Tem Becca Balint. It’ll be his first year in this important new position – what can you tell us about his leadership style?
Peter Hirschfeld: The Senate Mitch is going to have 11 new members next year — 11 new members in a 30-member body. That’s a pretty heavy turnover, and it means that Phil Baruth is going to have find his leadership bearings in a really dynamic and unpredictable environment.
When I asked Baruth how he’ll manage this, he told me an interesting story about his first year in the Senate. It was 2011. And Baruth was one of six first-year senators coming into the Legislature that year. The pro tem at the time was a guy named John Campbell. And Baruth says Campbell didn’t do much to make new senators feel like an important part of the team.
“We weren’t told necessarily how to have an input into the process," Baruth said. "We had no levers to pull when we wanted something to happen. And as a result, we were a bit alienated. And I’ll speak only of myself — I helped to create some of the chaos in the chamber, because I couldn’t get done what I wanted done.”
Baruth would actually have off-campus meetings with other disaffected first-year senators, where they’d actively plot against their own senate president pro tem, because they were frustrated with his unwillingness to bring them into the fold.
Baruth says that experience will inform his approach to leading the Senate in 2023. Everyone is going to get a voice. Everyone is going to have an opportunity to influence the course of legislation. And Baruth is hoping that by empowering individual senators, no matter how long they’ve been in the building, he can build a lasting, united coalition of Democrats, Progressives and even Republicans. Baruth thinks this all-in approach will engender the kind of respect and allegiance he’ll need to get people on the same page when they need to be.
Over in the House, Pete, Jill Krowinski will begin her second term as speaker. What did she learn during her first two years in that role? And how will that shape her work in 2023?
So I asked the Speaker about this Mitch, and she said that her first term was pretty fraught. Recall that Jill Krowinksi had no idea she even going to be speaker of the House last biennium. And she only came into the role because the previous speaker, Mitzi Johnson, lost her reelection race in a surprise defeat to a Republican challenger.
Krowinski says it made it tough to get things established at the outset. And she says remote legislating — remember the pandemic was still raging back then — further complicated the business of running a chamber of the Legislature.
This year, she returns not only with some experience in hand, but also has the benefit of getting to see her colleagues day in and day out, which will allow her and her leadership team to take the temperature of her caucus in ways that might have been more difficult during the last term.
She told me the biggest stressor this time around is the fact that so many incumbent lawmakers retired, and that there are going to be so many new faces to get accustomed to in January. And she says that’s going to affect the way she runs the House, in the short term at least.
“So I do think that we will have and we should have a slower pace in the beginning, to make sure that everyone is understanding their role, getting all of the background work, doing all of our 101 and 201 trainings to really get a sense of their committees, of their jurisdictions, and what that means," Krowinski said.
I was at the Statehouse earlier this month, when most of the 104 House Democrats met together for the first time since the November election. The energy was high. People seemed legitimately excited to work with each other.
And Krowinski seems optimistic that they’re going to hold together as the session progresses.
Finally Pete, Democrats will have more seats in the Legislature next year than at any other time in state history. Does this mean they can pretty much disregard Republican Gov. Phil Scott? Because they have enough votes to override any prospective vetoes?
Jill Krowinski and Phil Baruth will tell you the answer to that question is, emphatically, "No."
I talked to some moderate Democrats before the November election, and they were frankly worried about the outcome we saw, where Democrats have on paper at least the votes they need to effectively sideline the governor. Because there are a lot of blue-dog Democrats in Montpelier that hew closer to the governor’s fiscal ideologies than a political figure like Bernie Sanders.
That means you’re going to have plenty of Democrats who are going to be skeptical about the merits of raising taxes to support child care, for example, or universal school meals.
And Phil Baruth says there’s a fallacy behind this whole notion of what we tend to call a supermajority:
“People tend to want to call it a supermajority, that is it’s super-powered and can do anything it wants and doesn’t have to listen to constituents or the governor or anyone else," Baruth said. "And I really think people need to retire that phrase, ‘supermajority.’”
Baruth says Democrats have been successful in Vermont because they’ve maintained a big-tent party. Will there be instances in which Democrats have the ability and inclination to override a gubernatorial veto? Almost certainly. But both Krowinski and Baruth say that will never be the first option. And they say they plan to be very strategic and careful about when or if to use their numbers to thwart the power of the executive branch.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld: