Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Amid Fiscal Uncertainty, Lawmakers Prepare For The Upcoming Session

Front of Vermont Statehouse
Angela Evancie
VPR File

They haven’t been sworn into office just yet. But the newly-elected members of the Legislature gathered in Montpelier this week for a primer on state finances. Analysts say the fiscal road ahead might get rocky, and lawmakers are preparing to navigate policy, and partisan politics, as the 2017 session gets underway.

The well of the Statehouse chamber was full of smiling faces on Wednesday morning. These are the winners, after all, having knocked off their opponents in last month’s elections. And collectively, they’re about to begin a new chapter in Vermont’s legislative history.

“We knew leaving here in May that a tremendous amount of experience was walking out the door, and we were going to have a new governor, a new pro tem, new lieutenant governor, a new speaker, a lot of new members, and a new president,” says South Hero Democratic Rep. Mitzi Johnson. 

Johnson currently chairs the House Committee on Appropriations, but by all accounts has the votes needed to become speaker of the house when lawmakers reconvene in January.

With a new Republican governor in Phil Scott, and a Democratically-controlled Legislature under new leadership in the House and Senate, the political dynamic here is something of a blank slate. Johnson plans to make her first marks by reaching across the aisle.  

“I think most importantly we can get together with each other, we can chat, and we can set up a process to really listen,” Johnson says.

How long that spirit of collaboration persists remains to be seen. Lawmakers already face a possible $75 million budget gap for fiscal year 2018. That figure could rise dramatically, if federal revenues flowing to Vermont begin to dry up under President-elect Donald Trump.

House Minority Leader Don Turner says Republicans expect far more fiscal constraint from Democrats than he says the majority party has demonstrated in years past.

“With Governor-elect Scott’s promise to make Vermont affordable, I think they realize that their days of spending whatever they want on all these programs is probably over,” Turner says.

Lawmakers already face a possible $75 million budget gap for fiscal year 2018, which could dramatically, if federal revenues flowing to Vermont begin to dry up under President-elect Donald Trump.

It’s impossible at this early stage to judge the distance between Republicans and Democrats on key budget issues. But Mitzi Johnson and Turner sound surprisingly similar when it comes to how to they’ll approach the problems that lie ahead. 

Johnson says lawmakers need to take a “pause.”

“Take a pause to evaluate what’s happening in state government – what are we doing, how well are we doing it? – and really look at who’s better off, and how we can prioritize those to be able to make smarter decisions where our money’s concerned,” Johnson says.

Turner says he wants to wants to conduct the same kind of evaluation.  

“We want to make sure that we scrub all these programs, and we look at what’s going on so that when we go forward, we make a budget that we know is sustainable and is spending the dollars most wisely for taxpayers,” Turner says.

The difficulty, of course, arrives when both sides try to agree on what constitutes necessary or “wise” spending, and whether that spending is, in Turner’s words, “sustainable.”

The difficulty arrives when both sides try to agree on what constitutes necessary or "wise" spending.

Turner’s caucus will run its own candidate for the speakership – that’s Rep. Linda Myers, of Essex. It’s inconceivable that a Democratically-controlled House is going to select a member of the GOP for that role. But Turner says Republicans need to try to move Democratic leadership to the center.

“We know that Mitzi is more liberal than our caucus. She was the chair of appropriations, she’s been spending the money,” Turner says. “She moves to the speaker’s office, I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Johnson says she’s open to the possibility of reductions in state spending in certain areas of government. But she says fiscal responsibility isn’t about slashing budgets.

“We have to understand though that in certain areas, cutting a dollar in state spending means cutting $3 to $5 in services, in some cases up to $10 in services,” Johnson says.

Lawmakers begin the 2017 session on Wednesday, Jan. 4.

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.
Latest Stories