Republicans may have minority status in the Vermont House of Representatives, but they showed Tuesday they’re still a force to be reckoned with.
In a party-line vote, the GOP caucus successfully thwarted Democrats’ attempt to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the state budget.
If elected officials can’t reach a budget deal before the end of this month, Vermont could face an unprecedented government shutdown.
On Tuesday afternoon, shortly after House Republicans voted to sustain Scott’s budget veto, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe talked with colleagues on the Senate floor to contemplate their next steps.
“Well, we’re in a pretty extraordinary situation,” Ashe said.
Extraordinary, Ashe said, because Vermont now finds itself 11 days from the end of the fiscal year with no budget deal in sight. And also because the budget that was rejected first by Scott, and now by House Republicans, had earlier in the year won broad tri-partisan approval in both chambers of the Vermont Legislature.
“Today, a number of House Republicans voted against a bill they had already voted for, the contents of which they do not disagree with at all, merely to fall in lockstep with the political office of the governor,” Ashe said.
House Minority Leader Don Turner said it’s true that many of his Republican colleagues previously supported the spending plan.
“We still do,” Turner said Tuesday.
Turner said it’s the increase in statewide property tax rates that will come about as a result of that budget that Republicans can’t abide.
And until and unless Democrats agree to use $34 million in one-time money to keep rates flat next year, as Scott has called for, Turner said his caucus will continue to withhold support for the budget.
“We do not want a government shutdown. We are willing to work with the majority, work with the governor, to keep government open,” Turner said. “But we are not willing to pass a default tax increase in Vermonters.”
The stakes in this game of political brinksmanship are rising quickly. If elected officials can’t get a budget in place before July 1, the state could descend into a government shutdown.
In a press conference after the veto override vote, Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright said it is time for Democrats and the governor to negotiate a solution.
“We’ve let the governor’s office know that as well, that we expect there to be compromise on both sides,” Wright said.
Turner jumped in after Wright said those words to add an important caveat: “with the exception of raising taxes. We’re not going to raise taxes.”
And therein lies the problem right now: Scott and Republican lawmakers say they won’t support any budget that results in a property tax increase. And Ashe and other Democrats say using one-time money to buy down tax rates is a fiscally reckless political gimmick.
“And so I don’t have a clear answer about what’s next,” Ashe said.
Ashe said his anxiety is heightened by the fact that the Scott administration doesn’t appear to have a clear plan in place for what happens if the government does shut down.
“This is not a small issue. This would be a massive problem for the state. And frankly, the precedent it would set for the future is quite disturbing,” Ashe said.
Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said they’ll have a new budget to the governor’s desk before the fiscal year expires. Whether he’s willing to sign it this time around remains to be seen.