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GOP Lawmakers Prepare For Democratic Rule In Statehouse

The Statehouse without its Ceres statute on a gray day in November with snow on the ground.
Meg Malone
With so few GOP lawmakers returning to the Legislature next year, Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning said Republican Gov. Phil Scott will have to "choose his battles."

It’s been more than a decade since Republicans controlled either chamber of the Vermont Legislature, but the results from last week’s elections will push House and Senate Republicans even further to the margins in Montpelier.

Republicans might have retained control of the governor’s office last Tuesday, but Gov. Phil Scott’s re-election victory was the party’s only bright spot on Election Day. And if GOP lawmakers thought they had a tough time advancing their agenda during the last legislative biennium, then Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning said the 2019 session will be even more daunting.

“I don’t think that it’s the Republican agenda that’s going to be the subject for conversation,” Benning said. “I think it will be the Democrat and the Progressive agenda that will be the subject for conversation in most of the discussion going on in the Legislature.”

Benning is one of only six Republicans left standing in the Vermont Senate after last Tuesday.

GOP losses in the House were even more severe. Republicans saw their numbers dwindle from 53 to 43, meaning they no longer have the votes needed to sustain their Republican governor’s veto.

Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who narrowly won re-election in her district, will be one of those 43 Republicans in the Vermont House.

“It’s a very different makeup, obviously, in the Legislature right now,” Scheuermann says. “It’s a very different landscape in the Legislature.”

So what’s a fiscally conservative governor to do? Benning has some advice:

“I think that Phil Scott, looking at it from our end of things, is going to have to pick and choose his battles,” Benning said.

And if Scott chooses those battles wisely, Benning said Republicans in the Legislature may be able to enlist some unlikely allies.

“The middle ground and the more Blue Dog Democrats are going to realize that there’s still fiscal responsibility in the air," Benning said. "And I think people will be talking to each other sooner rather than later." 

And Scheuermann said bipartisan collaboration isn’t out of the question next year.

“I think we have some opportunities to really work together,” Scheuermann said. “I think we have some challenges that we might not be able to agree on, and I understand that and that’s the process.”

And Benning said if Republicans can’t prevail on Democrats to abandon policies like a $15 minimum wage or paid family leave, then they’ll have to make a better case to people outside the building.

“And constantly remind folks that we have to pay for things," Benning said, "constantly remind folks that there’s a Constitution that we have to adhere to, and be as loud as we possibly can be about those issues."

Unfortunately for Republicans, they won’t have as many voices to raise.

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