On Wednesday evening, the Vermont Senate reconvened in Montpelier to officially adjourn the 2019 legislative session.
Senate lawmakers had hoped their House counterparts would join them at the Statehouse Wednesday, to give one last shot at passing the paid leave and minimum wage proposals. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson declined that overture, however, and the two bills will be held over until 2020.
Last week, Democratic leaders in the Vermont House and Senate failed to cut a deal on paid family leave and increasing the minimum wage. But for all the rancor over two of Democrats' top legislative priorities this year, there was surprisingly little difference between their competing proposals.
The intensity of the paid leave and minimum wage debate belied the relatively short distance between House and Senate proposals. By Friday, all that separated the chambers was 5 cents and eight weeks:
- House leaders said they’d agree to legislation that raised the minimum wage to $12.15 an hour by 2021, and a paid leave bill that allowed for new parents to get a combined 24 weeks of paid time off to bond with a newborn. That’s 12 weeks per parent.
- The Senate, meanwhile, said it would capitulate to legislation that increased the minimum wage to $12.20 an hour by 2021, and a leave bill that allowed for up to 16 weeks of combined parental leave for a newborn.
On all the other details in those proposals, the House and Senate were on the same page. But it all fell down — over a nickel on the minimum wage, and eight weeks on paid leave.
“When we were that close, we thought it was a matter of five more minutes in the room, and moving 50% in one another’s direction,” Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said Tuesday.
Ashe said he made precisely that offer, during a private meeting with Johnson on Friday afternoon.
“And the Speaker said it was too late, that they wanted to adjourn,” Ashe said.
Johnson said there was a reason she rebuffed Ashe’s eleventh hour appeal for a meet-in-the-middle resolution to their weekslong standoff over the two bills.
“We had already compromised a significant amount,” Johnson said.
The problem with Ashe’s offer, Johnson said, is that it still leaned heavily in favor of the Senate’s original position — “which wasn’t a meet in the middle,” Johnson said.
Frustrated by lack of progress on the House and Senate negotiations, Johnson emailed Ashe an official letter Friday morning. In it, she laid out what she said were the House’s last, best offers for a paid leave and minimum wage compromise.
Johnson said those offers were the ones that truly met the middle. She said she fired off the letter only after the House made numerous concessions, without any reciprocity from the Senate.
“And until late Friday afternoon, the Senate hadn’t moved off of their position in weeks,” Johnson said.
After the meeting between Johnson and Ashe failed to yield a compromise, the speaker emerged from her office Friday afternoon and told reporters that the House would be adjourning for the year. Paid family and medical leave and an increase in the minimum wage, she said, would have to wait until 2020.
Ashe said he didn’t see it coming.
“I don’t think we appreciated that the speaker actually intended to adjourn without those bills. We thought there was a zero percent chance of that, and we were wrong,” Ashe said.
Had he known the speaker was ready to pull the plug in 2019, Ashe said he might have gone with the offer in Johnson’s letter.
“If we had believed that the House would walk away without those two bills, I might have, you know, on behalf of the Senate, made a different choice,” Ashe said.
Complicating negotiations on Friday, according to Ashe, was that House leaders had on Thursday reneged on a handshake deal between the two chambers on a grand bargain for paid leave and minimum wage.
Ashe said that deal would have raised the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour by 2021 and created a paid leave program that allowed for paid bonding leave, paid time off to care for an ailing family member, and a voluntary paid leave option wherein workers could pay an additional payroll tax in order to be eligible for up to six weeks of leave for a personal injury or illness.
“At one point [Thursday], we were told we had an agreement, so many of us were starting to ready for adjournment Thursday night,” Ashe said. “Then, that was walked back. And that left us kind of scratching our heads and figuring out what the next steps were.”
Johnson said the deal unraveled after it became clear that Senate lawmakers misunderstood precisely what the House had offered.
“When we went back to say, 'Okay, here’s the language for that deal.' And people said, 'Wait, that’s not what we agreed to,'” Johnson said Tuesday.
Johnson said the House believed that the Senate had agreed to a paid leave bill that would have a voluntary option for personal illness for three years, but then automatically convert to a mandatory personal illness provision.
“Each side thought that we were there, but each side had a different understanding of what 'there' meant,” Johnson said.
Instead of cutting a deal this year, House and Senate lawmakers will be back in Montpelier in 2020, to once again try to hash out their differences over paid leave and minimum wage. Both Ashe and Johnson said they expect a more successful round of negotiations next January.
Update 4:39 p.m. This post and headline were updated following the Senate adjournment.