MONTPELIER — Washington County’s legislators expressed surprise that the Democratic majority in the Vermont House and Senate failed to pass legislation on paid family leave and raising the minimum wage, two of the party’s priorities, before the session closed.
House lawmakers adjourned May 24, while the Senate did not adjourn until May 29, marking the first time in four decades the two chambers adjourned on different days.
“I am disappointed that we didn’t finish our work on minimum wage and paid family leave but there’s a second year in the biennium yet to come, and I am confident these issues will pass,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-North Middlesex.
Pollina, who co-sponsored both bills in the Senate, said he believes that their passage will benefit low-income Vermonters.
“When we talk about helping low-income people, raising the minimum wage is one of the best ways to raise people out of poverty,” he said. “Paid family leave is one of the best ways to keep young families in the state, and to attract them to the state, so they’re just good policies.”
Other members of the Washington County delegation voted against the bills, including Rep. Rob Laclair, R-Barre. Laclair said he would be in favor of a voluntary paid family leave plan like the one Gov. Phil Scott proposed.
“I have made it clear that if we come up with a paid family leave program that has a voluntary component to it I believe the Republican caucus would support that,” he said.
Laclair commended Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, for adjourning when she did.
“I’m very pleased that the speaker took the action that she did,” he said. “The Senate was sitting on the budget and some other things because they wanted to get their way and that is not a good way for legislation to get passed.”
Rep. Peter Anthony, D-Barre, said that while he was disappointed with the result, he still supported the speaker’s decision.
“I stayed, everybody stayed, crossing our fingers that we would get a message from the Senate that we’re closing the gap, but that message never came,” he said. “Out of respect to the voters who will be picking up the tab, I think if there’s not clear movement on Friday there’s no reason to come back Monday and Tuesday.”
Johnson agreed with the characterization that she put her foot down in an interview on Thursday, May 30.
“The House had moved on its proposals a number of different times to say, ‘If these are your concerns this is where we would be willing to compromise,’ and we weren’t getting that kind of flexibility back,” Johnson said. “I gave one last opportunity to say these are the various things we have talked about and this is what I would be willing to take back to the House and we need an answer quickly, and the deadline passed. So I said, ‘OK, let’s go home and we’ll do this next year.’”
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said in an interview on Friday, May 31, that the Senate was minutes away from an agreement when the House adjourned.
“We sent over those bills to give them the chance to concur with them,” he said. “In a very tense, fast-moving situation last Friday, we decided not to adjourn until Wednesday to keep open the possibility that the House would return to finish up those two bills.”
Ashe said it was a shame to push these issues until next year, and he urged people not to reduce the narrative to a disagreement between him and Johnson.
“Whenever the story gets reduced to two people out of 180, it’s a disservice,” he said. “This is not about the Speaker and me, or about House leadership and Senate leadership, it’s about coming to an agreement on two complicated political issues.”
Aside from the failure to pass paid family leave and minimum wage, Ashe and Johnson both said that this was a very productive session, and many in the Washington County delegation felt the drama last week overshadowed other accomplishments.
“The bulk of us were doing our jobs, finishing up our bills, getting them passed,” said Democratic Sen. Ann Cummings. “Things were actually going very smoothly.”
Cummings cited legislation designed to permanently fund water clean up through a percentage of the rooms and meals tax as a big achievement this session, along with a new measure that adjusts the tax on certain online sales.
“We have marketplace facilitators, which are places like Etsy and eBay and Amazon, which not only sell their own things but that help other people sell there’s,” she said. “Now those sales made into the state of Vermont will be taxed.”
Pollina highlighted several environmental achievements, including a bill limiting the use of a pesticide that harms honey bees, and the plastic bag ban.
“We banned single use plastic bags,” he said. “It’s a step toward getting plastic out of our environment.”
Pollina also mentioned a new state law designed to protect the right to an abortion. First steps were also taken to pass a state constitutional amendment to protect that same right.
Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Montpelier, worked on a bill that would exempt owners of older cars from emissions testing standards.
“If your vehicle is over 16 years old you get an exemption for emissions testing,” he said, explaining that this measure was designed to help low income drivers. “By and large, low income people drive older cars.”
Anthony said he was proud of the work he did to help raise the funding available for assisted care facilities, like Lincoln House in his district.
“The Medicaid reimbursement for taking in financially indigent folks had not been raised in years. It was stuck at about $37 a day,” he said. “Costs are nearly double that.” The new law would raise that cap to $42 a day.
Anthony also worked to increase downtown tax credit, designed to revitalize downtown areas across the state, to $2.6 million annually.
Laclair praised child care legislation that passed the State House this year.
“We got some child care legislation passed that will hopefully help make child care more accessible and more affordable for families, and also encourage people to get into that industry, because there is a real need for quality child care in Vermont,” he said.
In addition to revisiting paid family leave and minimum wage next session, legislators hope to do more work on reducing the cost of public higher education, passing a tax and regulate system for marijuana and approving changes made to the Montpelier city charter that would grant non-citizen residents the right to vote in local town elections.