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Legislature adjourns, and partisan battle spills from Statehouse to campaign trail

A person in a dark suit standing in front of a podium
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Gov. Phil Scott delivered a speech to Senate lawmakers after they adjourned early Saturday morning. Scott has indicated he'll veto several bills passed by the Legislature this year, including one that sets statewide property tax rates next year.

On Friday evening, a few hours before the final gavel fell on the 2024 legislative session, Windsor County Sen. Dick McCormack took a seat in the same committee room spot that Phil Scott once occupied as a junior senator from Washington County.

“I was Phil Scott’s first committee chair,” McCormack said with a smile.

McCormack, a Democrat who’s served in the Senate for most of the last 35 years and is not running for reelection, recalled his time with Scott during the early 2000s fondly.

“We negotiated with respect and fairness,” he said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say affection, but mutual fondness.”

Over the past eight years, as he’s watched Scott veto more bills than any governor in Vermont’s history, McCormack said he sees less and less of the colleague he grew to respect during their time together on the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

“We are at least in the very early stages of a tax rebellion in this state."
Republican St. Johnsbury Rep. Scott Beck

“The change that I’d like to see is the Phil Scott I once knew,” he said. “He doesn’t seem to be as interested in working together.”

McCormack’s sentiments reflect an intensifying friction between Democrats in the House and Senate, and a four-term Republican who regularly polls as the most popular governor in the United States.

Scott has, over the past two years, has vetoed some of Democrats’ biggest legislative initiatives, including the clean heat standard, the child care bill, and a fiscal year 2024 budget plan that increased general fund spending by more than 13%.

A person in a black shirt and tie sitting in a chair next to a table with lots of papers on it
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Windsor County Sen. Dick McCormack, sitting in the same committee room spot Phil Scott once occupied when he served in the Senate.

Several more pieces of legislation passed in recent days, including a new renewable energy requirement for electric utilities, and an overdose prevention center proposed for Burlington, will also meet with his veto pen.

As the ideological distance between Scott and the Legislature widens, they seem equally baffled by the path the other would take.

“It’s safe to say, I’m confused with the direction the Legislature is going,” Scott said in late March.

He was referring then to proposed income tax increases on high-earning individuals and corporations, as well energy policies related to home heating fuel and electricity that will, by his estimate, increase the cost of living by hundreds of millions of dollars a year for homeowners, renters and ratepayers.

"For reasons I do not understand, [Phil Scott] does not seem to hear the voices of people I hear … saying, ‘We really want these services. We’re willing to pay.'"
Democratic Barre City Rep. Peter Anthony

He was also referencing the $100 million payroll tax, set to take effect July 1, that will fund new child care subsidies, and the more than $200 million increase in statewide education property taxes forecast for next year.

“We hear from Vermonters, every single day, who are more than just concerned,” Scott said. “Some are angry, and some are just plain scared.”

Now that lawmakers have adjourned for the session, the battle of ideas spills from the Statehouse and onto the campaign trail, where Scott is hoping voter disaffection over new government spending will erode the supermajority that Democrats have relied on to override his vetoes.

St. Johnsbury Rep. Scott Beck said Friday that he thinks voters are ready for change.

“We are at least in the very early stages of a tax rebellion in this state. And some people would say we’re beyond the first stages, that people are fed up, they’re tapped out,” Beck said. “And for some people, it’s not even an issue of whether they think it’s good policy or not. It’s literally, ‘I don’t have enough money in my pockets to pay this stuff.’”

A person in a gray suit and orange tie at a podium with microphones on it, surrounded by about a dozen people
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
St. Johnsbury Rep. Scott Beck, at the podium during at a press conference hosted by the House Republican Caucus earlier this year, saysDemocrats' proposed tax increases will stunt economic growth in Vermont.

As Democrats have increased their numbers in the Statehouse in recent election cycles, Beck said, the Legislature has strayed from the centrist sensibilities that he thinks define the broader electorate.

“Where you have a supermajority and super-minority, the policies of the building strongly start to reflect the supermajority, and not necessarily Vermonters,” he said.

Barre City Rep. Peter Anthony, a three-term Democrat who’s not running for reelection, said Scott and Beck are misreading the room.

He said most Vermonters he speaks with have lost faith in an economy that people could once rely on to deliver a decent quality of life for working-class citizens. As the promise of a free-market system dissipates, he said, people want government to undertake the reforms, and related spending, needed to ensure that residents have access to basic necessities such as housing and health care.

“And for reasons I do not understand, [Scott] does not seem to hear the voices of people I hear, constituents … saying, ‘We really want these services. We’re willing to pay. Please provide these services. The private market is not working,’” he said.

Fairfax Rep. Ashley Bartley, a Republican, said that for most Vermonters, the rise in government spending correlates with the implosion of their personal finances.

A person in a checkered blazer sitting at a long wood table
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Fairfax Rep. Ashley Bartley says "affordability" will be the top issue for voters in November.

“Right now, our Vermonters are tapped out. Their gas is increasing. Their price of eggs is increasing,” she said. “And they’re really worried about how they’re going to pay their taxes.”

The affordability of life in Vermont, Bartley said, is what’s at stake when voters head to the ballot box in November.

“I have constituents who are afraid they won’t be able to live in Vermont,” she said. “I think we’re all hearing those kinds of stories. I’m just not sure how we kind of come back to the middle and bring solutions.”

Though Scott has yet to officially announce that he’s running for reelection, he’s widely expected to seek a fifth term. Former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean says he’s considering challenging Scott, and that he’ll announce his decision by the end of the month.

Scott, however, has his eyes not just on retaining the governor’s seat, but on altering the makeup of the legislative branch he might have to work with next year. House Republicans say they expect to field a more solid slate of candidates than they have in previous years; Scott said recently that he’s playing an active role in the candidate recruitment process.

Four-term Democratic Brattleboro Rep. Tristan Toleno said Friday that, so long as Vermont remains under divided government, with a Democratically controlled Legislature and a Republican governor, voters can expect “the status quo.”

A person in a vest and tie, sitting at a red picnic table
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Brattleboro Rep. Tristan Toleno said divided government is a "recipe for the status quo."

“If people feel that the way things are right now, or have been, is the way they should be, then split government is a good tool for basically maintaining things at the status level,” he said.

Toleno, who is not running for reelection, said he hopes they won’t be satisfied with that status quo. Bills passed by the House this year, such as an income tax increase on high earners to fund a 10-year plan for affordable housing, he said, represent the kind of solutions that will likely remain at bay so long as Scott is at the helm of the executive branch.

“Do we actually want to do root causes? Or do we want to get through a two-year cycle and get reelected?” Toleno said. “That’s what this election cycle will in part be about, is, ‘are we willing to invest in changing some of the root causes that we’re dealing with?’”

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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