In Budget Debate, Shumlin Finds An Ally In Republican Minority
There’s no love lost between the Republican minority in Montpelier and the Democratic governor they blame for many of the state’s fiscal problems. But the House GOP has suddenly, if only temporarily, become one of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s chief political allies.
Shortly after noon on Thursday, House Minority Leader Don Turner summoned members of his Republican caucus to a first-floor conference room inside the Statehouse. The topic was a possible looming gubernatorial veto, and whether House lawmakers could be counted on to sustain it.
“Since I’m getting this question on a regular basis now, I want to know how you guys feel about it,” Turner said.
On a voice vote, the caucus voted to support the governor's potential veto.
The meeting comes amid a dramatic showdown over taxes between Shumlin and Democratic leadership in the Legislature that has gripped the capital in these waning days of the session. The House and Senate favor an approximately $35 million revenue bill that raises money in large part by limiting the income tax deductions Vermonters can use to lower their tax bills.
The proposal raises a disproportionate share of the money from wealthy filers.
"Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing, because lord knows he needs it, but is this going to raise the governor's political capital by saying, 'We’ll back you on this budget?'" - Colchester Rep. Joey Purvis
Shumlin, however, says limiting residents’ ability to deduct things like mortgage interest, health care expenses and charitable contributions is a nonstarter. He says lawmakers ought to cut items like labor costs and weatherization funds to balance the budget instead.
Shumlin hasn’t come out and said he’ll veto the Legislature’s tax plan. But he’s expressed his extreme opposition. And Turner told colleagues that perhaps they can improve the governor’s negotiating position if they make public their intentions.
“If the governor’s serious, we want to make sure that we send a loud and clear message that we’re with him or we’re not,” Turner said.
Turner’s colleagues said they appreciate the benefit of lower spending that might come with Shumlin’s position. But Colchester Rep. Joey Purvis wondered whether it makes sense to aid the enemy.
“And maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing, because lord knows he needs it, but is this going to raise the governor’s political capital by saying, 'We’ll back you on this budget?'” he said.
"I believe that the governor is doing what our constituents have asked us to do. And if that's the case, why wouldn't we support him, whatever the political ramifications are?" - House Minority Leader Don Turner
Turner said that in his view, the benefits of fiscal restraint outweigh the pitfalls of backing the governor.
“I believe that the governor is doing what our constituents have asked us to do. And if that’s the case, why wouldn’t we support him, whatever the political ramifications are,” Turner said.
If the caucus sticks together, as it indicated it would in a unanimous voice vote, then its 54 votes would be enough to sustain a veto.
House Speaker Shap Smith said it’s premature to talk about whether there will be a veto, but acknowledged the GOP position to sustain one if there is will inevitably affect the bargaining-room dynamic. Smith said he’s hopeful a deal with the administration is in the offing.
“We’re just taking a look at a number of different proposals, and we’ll see where things go,” Smith said.
Smith said the lawmakers’ version of the tax and budget bills are far more austere than the governor’s proposal. Shumlin had at the outset of the session sought to raise $90 million in taxes annually by imposing a .7 percent payroll tax on every business in the state.
“Our spending is significantly lower than what the governor originally proposed, and I think is more attuned to what Vermonters are ready for,” Smith said.
Shumlin wanted to use the money to draw down an additional $100 million in federal money, to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates. Shumlin said the plan would have the effect of lowering health insurance costs for the same businesses paying the new payroll surcharge.
Lawmakers rejected the plan. Smith said he still hopes to adjourn by Saturday.