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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Compromise Eludes House and Senate Democrats On Paid Leave, Minimum Wage

A view inside the Vermont statehouse.
Toby Talbot
The Vermont Legislature didn't technically adjourn the legislative session Friday. But House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said her chamber won't be returning to the Statehouse again until 2020, which means paid leave and minimum wage bills are dead for 2019.

After winning supermajorities in both chambers of the Vermont Legislature last fall, House and Senate Democrats have failed to deliver on the two issues that many voters in their party elected them to pass.

The push to approve paid family and medical leave and a $15 minimum wage came to an abrupt end Friday afternoon when House Speaker Mitzi Johnson emerged from her office to declare that both pieces of legislation were dead for 2019.

Johnson said a weeks-long standoff between Democratic leaders in the House and Senate had failed to yield a compromise. With the Memorial Day weekend looming, and legislators already past their scheduled adjournment date, Johnson said the time for negotiating had passed.

“And I think it’s time to wrap up, celebrate all of the good work that we’ve accomplished, and come together in January,” Johnson said.

Johnson said House lawmakers will return for the 2020 session ready to resume talks with the Senate over a paid leave and minimum wage compromise.

"Maybe consider the people in Vermont who are not going to be celebrating this weekend, struggling to think how they're going to feed their children. Maybe consider their plight, and then come back here with a renewed sense of urgency and compromise." — Jubilee McGill, Bridport

“And I think with a fresh start in January and a little bit of refinement, we’ll have a very solid package to the governor’s desk early on in the session,” Johnson said.

Senate President Tim Ashe, however, said he wasn’t ready to pull the plug on what had been two of Democrats’ top priorities heading into the session.

After Johnson declared the paid leave and minimum wage bills dead for the year, Senate lawmakers passed both pieces of legislation Friday evening, in the hopes that the House would return to the table next week to take up the bills.

While the House approved a resolution that would have the legislature adjourn until next year, the Senate failed to concur, which means the body isn’t technically in adjournment yet.

Senate lawmakers say they’ll return to the Statehouse next Wednesday, eager to strike a deal.

The cost of Senate lawmakers returning for even a single day will likely run tens of thousands of dollars, but Ashe said it’s a worthwhile price to pay if it results in an increase in the minimum wage.

“We would be disappointed if we had to wait another year to take up both of those issues, and sometimes opportunities present themselves when you thought they were all closed off,” Ashe said. “From our point of view, if our action toady had been to adjourn, we would have been closing the last door on reaching agreements on both of those bills.”

That door, according House leaders, is not just closed, but locked, for 2019 at least. And they said that while the Senate may be coming back next week, there will be no one from the House of Representatives to take action.

“We have adjourned,” House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski said. “I know there’s disappointment that we didn’t get these policies across the finish line, but we have another session to be able to focus and pass something very early on, and so that’s what I’m going to be working on over the summer and fall.”

Johnson sent a letter to Ashe Friday morning, outlining five permutations of a paid leave/minimum wage compromise to which her chamber was ready to agree. The Senate was unwilling to acquiesce to any of them.  

The House prefers a more robust paid leave plan, but a smaller increase in the minimum wage, while the Senate wants a larger minimum wage boost, but a pared down paid leave program.

Legislation passed by the Senate Friday evening would bring the minimum wage to $12.20 by 2021. The paid leave bill passed by the Senate would allow for 12 weeks of paid leave to take care of a newborn, and eight weeks to care for an ailing family member. That proposal would require a 0.2 percent payroll tax on virtually every worker in the state. The Senate proposal would also allow Vermonters to voluntarily pay an additional payroll-tax premium to be eligible for up to six weeks of paid leave for a personal injury or medical crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint said the proposed paid leave compromise is identical to one the House agreed to earlier this week.

“We thought we had a deal yesterday at noon, that’s what we were going on. And then the House came back to us a couple hours later and said, ‘We don’t have a deal,’” Balint said.

Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas said the legislature’s inability to reach agreement “is disappointing.”

“It’s frustrating that we couldn’t figure out how to come together on this,” Copeland-Hanzas said.

But she said waiting until next year to get a compromise might mean better policy in the long term.

“These are important issues. They have a major impact on Vermonters who are working and Vermont employers, and I think it’s okay if we come back and do them in January,” Copeland-Hanzas said.

Jubilee McGill, a Bridport resident who used her own paid time off this week to lobby for passage of the minimum wage bill in the Legislature, said low-wage Vermonters can’t afford to wait for a raise.

“I’m so disappointed,” said McGill, who serves on the leadership committee of Rights and Democracy, a group pushing for a higher minimum wage. “It really feels like egos got in the way of lifting up the most vulnerable people in the state of Vermont.”

McGill is holding out hope that House leaders will reconsider the Senate’s offer to reconvene next week, to hash out a deal.

“Maybe consider the people in Vermont who are not going to be celebrating this weekend, struggling to think how they’re going to feed their children,” McGill said. “Maybe consider their plight, and then come back here with a renewed sense of urgency and compromise.”

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