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Scott chides 'arrogant' Legislature after Democrats flex supermajority in veto session

A man in a dark suit and striped tie speaking in front of a wooden podium with the seal of Vermont on its front
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Republican Gov. Phil Scott, seen here speaking to reporters Tuesday, said Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate have rendered him powerless over policies coming out of the Legislature.

No governor has issued more vetoes in the history of the state of Vermont than Republican Phil Scott, and no Legislature has overridden more vetoes in a single day than Democratic lawmakers did on Monday.

The governor’s willingness to use his veto pen — and Democrats’ ability to erase it — represents a deepening partisan chasm in Montpelier.

Vermont Public Senior Political Reporter Bob Kinzel talked with reporter Peter Hirschfeld to learn more about what the strife in Montpelier tells us about the future of divided government in Vermont. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Kinzel: Democrats overrode six vetoes on Monday, on bills dealing with everything from property taxes to bans on insecticides. What’s the overarching takeaway from this veto session? In terms of what these overrides tell us about the split between our Republican governor and the Democratic Legislature?

Peter Hirschfeld: These bills dealt with very different topic areas, as you note — property taxes, health care, energy policy and land-use regulations. Big picture, though, they all capture the tension that has characterized this entire legislative session, and that is: How pronounced a role should state government play in the lives of Vermont residents and businesses?

When it comes to banning neonicotinoids, for example, lawmakers want to err on the side of stricter regulations on farmers for the benefit of pollinators. Whereas Phil Scott and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature prefer a more laissez-faire approach for agriculture businesses, and want fewer restrictions on their operations generally, not more.

When it comes to the renewable energy standard, Democratic lawmakers say it’s incumbent on the government to enact policies that force utilities to reduce carbon emissions in some very prescriptive ways, whereas Phil Scott and the Republican Party are more resistant to government influence on the electricity market.

Democrats really champion this interventionist approach and say it’s the surest way to harness the power of government to improve the lives of the people it serves.

Republicans, like Granby Rep. Terri Lynn Williams — whose district is in the very rural outreaches of Essex County — say Democrats have pushed through a big-government agenda that is quite literally eradicating a way of life for working class residents:

Terri Lynn Williams: The most underserved, lowest-income, oldest population in Vermont — yes, my district — is getting shafted again. We can’t afford to live here anymore. Our children are leaving the state. Instead of helping us help ourselves, you are destroying our very existence.

Peter Hirschfeld: So, Republicans and Democrats have very different ideas about the role government ought to be playing in people’s lives. And we saw that play out in Montpelier this year in ways that really heighten the contrast for voters.

People fill long rows of desks in an ornately decorated House chamber.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
The Vermont House considered overriding bills vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott during a veto session on Monday, June 17, 2024.

Bob Kinzel: Democrats proved yesterday that they can flex their supermajorities in the Legislature to bypass the will of the governor. How will that affect the power dynamic between the legislative and executive branches in the future?

Peter Hirschfeld: I think that’s a really important question right now. Vermont is dealing with some urgent questions about foundational policies in our state, whether that’s school spending, the cost of health care, housing.

We all sort of assume that the legislative branch and the executive branch are going to come together in common cause to address those issues. But that certainly didn’t happen this year. And I don’t think anyone who spent time observing this most recent legislative session has much faith in the prospect of meaningful collaboration between Phil Scott and Democratic lawmakers next year.

I caught up with Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth shortly after the Legislature adjourned on Monday. And I asked him — What does policymaking in Montpelier look like in the absence of a working relationship between the governor and the Legislature?

Baruth, to be clear, says he’s still open to, and hopeful for, constructive conversations with the governor. But he says the Legislature has now proven, with these most recent veto overrides, that lawmakers don’t need the governor in order to govern:

Phil Baruth: If the Legislature does its work and we come up with significant and well thought out policies that are popular with the public, a popular governor can’t stand in the way, because the framers of the constitution added the override as a way to address a governor who maybe thinks a little too much of his own popularity.

Peter Hirschfeld: I think we can take that to mean that if the Legislature maintains its numbers in the House and Senate next year, and we don’t see some kind of a meeting of the minds between Democratic leaders in the Legislature and Phil Scott, then Democratic lawmakers will take it upon themselves to run point on major policy decisions, regardless of what the governor thinks of their plans.

A man in a suit and tie and glasses speaks with his hands clasped in front of him.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Senate Pro Tempore Phil Baruth speaks after a vote during the veto session on Monday, June 17, 2024.

Bob Kinzel: So where does that leave Phil Scott? How does he reestablish his influence over the policies coming out of Montpelier?

Peter Hirschfeld: Scott had a media briefing on Tuesday in which he was very frank about the relative powerlessness of his office in this current context. He called lawmakers arrogant. He said they’re out of touch with Vermonters. And he even lobbed what may be the worst insult in politics these days, which is to liken a state political body to Congress:

Phil Scott: It seems as though they’re learning well from D.C. D.C. is dysfunctional. It’s all about partisan politics, and it’s all about leverage and who gets what and making sure that you have the majority. And they've learned well. It's turning into the same thing here in Vermont. And it's unfortunate.

Peter Hirschfeld: Scott’s strategy right now seems to be to convince voters that their Legislature is broken — that unless they restore partisan balance to either the House of the Senate, the Republican governor will be sidelined by a Legislature that can disregard the power of the executive.

And it’ll be interesting to see whether or to what extent that messaging influences decisions on down-ballot races in November.

A woman in a black shirt and gray cardigan speaks in to a microphone.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Rep. Laura Sibilia speaks before the House override vote on the Renewable Energy Standard bill during the veto session on Monday, June 17, 2024.

Bob Kinzel: And finally — the one veto that lawmakers were not able to override dealt with new data privacy requirements for Vermont companies. Why couldn't the Legislature summon the votes to override that bill? And what's the future for that issue?

Peter Hirschfeld: Businesses came out of the woodwork in recent days to warn lawmakers about the potentially severe downside risks they’d face if this bill went into law. They said it could add enormous compliance costs, that it could result in lawsuits against popular Vermont companies like Orvis and Burton.

And it worked. The Senate didn’t have close to enough votes for an override.

But this will absolutely be back on the legislative docket next year. Supporters of the bill say it was derailed by misinformation from Big Tech. They say they’re planning an outreach campaign to get the business community on board in 2025. And you can bet on another major data privacy bill reaching the governor’s desk next year.

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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.
Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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