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Paid Leave Bill In Jeopardy After House Falls Short Of Supermajority

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives will need to find at least eight more votes for their paid family leave bill if they hope to override an expected veto by Gov. Phil Scott.
Matthew Smith
VPR file
Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives will need to find at least eight more votes for their paid family leave bill if they hope to override an expected veto by Gov. Phil Scott.

The Vermont Legislature has given final approval to legislation that would create a statewide paid family leave program, but its passage into law remains uncertain.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott says he opposes the mandatory payroll tax required to fund the paid leave program, and he indicated in his budget address earlier this week that he plans to veto the measure.

While Senate lawmakers appear to have the two-thirds supermajority needed to override that veto, House lawmakers fell shy of a veto-proof threshold when they held their final vote on the bill. Based on the vote count Thursday, Democratic leaders will need to turn at least eight votes for the paid leave legislation if they hope to override the governor.

Opposition to the legislation Thursday came from some of the paid leave proposal’s biggest proponents. Progressive Rep. Selene Colburn said she struggled with her decision to vote ‘no.’

“Of course it’s a difficult decision. I mean, Progressives have fought for a paid family leave program for decades,” Colburn said.

But Colburn said the bill had been stripped of key provisions - including mandatory paid leave benefits for personal illness. And she called on lawmakers to reject the legislation in its current form in favor of something more robust.

“We ought to get this right for Vermonters, including the most vulnerable Vermonters who are at this point are just so increasingly left behind by this bill in its current form,” Colburn said.

Colburn’s wasn’t only protest vote Thursday. Five Progressives and at least one Democrat voted against the bill Thursday not because they don’t support paid family leave, but because they don’t think the legislation goes far enough.

Democratic leaders in the House may yet have a chance at winning them back: Colburn said her calculus might change when it comes time for a vote on whether to override Scott’s veto.

“I think that’s definitely a different vote and I’m willing to consider it and talk to people and hear from people with all points of view on that question,” Colburn said. “It’s clear that I have serious concerns about the bill, so I’m by no means a solid ‘yes’ vote for a veto override. But I think it’s different questions for different votes.”

Democrats like Morrisville Rep. David Yacovone will be among the lawmakers urging his Progressive colleagues to reconsider their opposition.

Yacovone said he too wishes the bill included mandatory paid leave coverage for personal illnesses. And he said he understands why its absence would compel some of lawmakers to holdout for something better.

“Twenty-eight years ago when I was a legislator in this body, I bristled on many occasions when our speaker then told us … ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,’” Yacovone said. "I didn’t buy that then. I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.”

With the “passage of years,” Yacovone said, his perspective has evolved. And he said the benefits the paid leave legislation will provide outweigh the ones it omits.

“There are so many struggling to make ends meet, living paycheck-to-paycheck, who simply cannot afford to be with their loved in their time of need,” Yacovonoe said.

The legislation relies on a 0.2% payroll tax on most Vermont workers to fund up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth of a newborn or an adoption, or up to eight weeks of leave to care for an ailing family member.

Senate lawmakers insisted on stripping the provision that would have allowed paid leave for personal illness, because it required a larger payroll tax of 0.55%.

The compromise legislation would allow workers to opt in for a paid leave benefit for personal illness, by voluntarily signing on to a higher payroll deduction.

Many Republicans, however, say the compromise measure is still more than many Vermonters can afford. And while they say they support the voluntary paid leave program endorsed by the governor, they say Vermonters shouldn’t be forced into participating.

“Many of us hear from our constituents of exactly how difficult it is to afford to live in Vermont,” St. Johnsbury Rep. Scott Beck said. “And at this point in time to dig into Vermonters’ pockets, working Vermonters’ pockets … just does not feel like the right thing to do.”

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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