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Vermont House Fails To Override Governor's Veto On Paid Leave Bill

People sitting at round desks on a red-carpeted floor.
Elodie Reed
VPR File
The Vermont House, pictured here on Jan. 7, failed to override Gov. Phil Scott's veto on a bill creating a mandatory family and medical leave program.

House lawmakers failed to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of their paid family and medical leave bill Wednesday after four Democrats broke ranks with party leadership by voting to sustain the Republican governor.

Democrats and Progressives hold a combined supermajority in the House of Representatives, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson hoped to use those numbers to go aroundScott’s executive decision. Democratic leaders, however, were unable to convince four of their members to join the override vote. And the final tally of 99-51 left lawmakers one vote shy of the votes they needed to override.

More from VPR — Gov. Phil Scott Vetoes Paid Leave Bill

“Obviously, [it's a] disappointment,” Johnson said after Wednesday’s vote. “But very encouraged that we had such a strong bill that made it this far in the process that an incredible number of Vermonters weighed in on in favor of.”

The outcome of the override vote was in question until the final roll call Wednesday. All 43 House Republicans had committed to sustaining Scott’s veto. Four Democrats and four Independents provided them the lift they needed to succeed.  

Among the key Democratic swing votes was Dorset Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan. She said she supports paid family leave in concept, but that the bill passed by the Legislature left her with too many “unanswered questions.”

"I would have loved to see a paid family leave plan go through in Vermont, but one that everybody was a part of and one we could afford." — Dorset Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan

“And you don’t just push a bill like this that’s going to cost so much money without vetting it,” Sullivan said. “I would have loved to see a paid family leave plan go through in Vermont, but one that everybody was a part of and one we could afford.”

The Legislature’s bill relied on an approximately $29 million payroll tax to fund guaranteed paid leave benefits for most workers in the state. The legislation would have allowed new parents to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a newborn, or eight weeks of paid leave to care for a sick or injured family member. Workers could also have opted to pay an additional premium for paid leave for a personal illness.

Many lawmakers made a humanitarian case for the override Wednesday. Jericho Rep. George Till said paid family leave offers economic benefits as well. He cited a recent study commissioned by the March of Dimes that analyzed workforce retention in two states with paid leave programs: California and New Jersey.

More from VPR — Paid Family Leave Clears Milestone In Vermont Senate

Thestudy looked at labor force participation in those states before and after the institution of their paid leave programs. It found a 20% reduction in women leaving the workforce after the first year of childbirth since the paid leave programs took effect.

“We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of workers every year staying in the workforce, paying taxes, helping to grow our economy,” Till said. “So frankly, if we’re truly concerned about Vermont’s economy and workforce, we can’t afford to not pass paid family leave.”

The failure to override Scott’s veto doesn’t mean Vermont won’t see the creation of a new paid family leave program. Scott inked a contract with the state workers union earlier this year that will provide paid family and medical leave benefits to all 8,500 state employees.

"So frankly, if we're truly concerned about Vermont's economy and workforce, we can't afford to not pass paid family leave." — Jericho Rep. George Till

Scott said Vermonters who don’t work for the government will also be able to purchase those same paid leave benefits, for a projected annual premium of about $260 a year.

St. Johnsbury Rep. Scott Beck, a Republican, said the question before lawmakers Wednesday wasn’t whether or not to support paid family leave.

“I think probably everybody in this body believes it’s a good idea,” Beck said. “The question is whether we should pursue the governor’s proposal … or … raise a $30 million payroll tax on tax-weary Vermonters.”

Johnson said a voluntary plan won’t be nearly as effective as what lawmakers proposed.

More from VPR — Scott Seizes Opening For Voluntary Paid Leave Program

“I think the governor’s plan is fine for just the state employees and does nothing to support families, build a workforce, and attract young people to Vermont,” she said.

Johnson said the voluntary plan will also cost average-wage Vermonters far more in annual premiums than what they would have paid under the Legislature’s plan.

Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Legislature during the two terms Scott has been in office. They haven’t succeeded yet in overriding one of his vetoes, though they may get another try soon. They recently sent him a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $12.55 an hour starting in 2022.

Scott has expressed serious reservations with the bill. If he vetoes the legislation, House Democrats will once again try to muster the votes to override him.

Correction 6:40 p.m: This story has been updated to reflect the correct tally of the House vote.

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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