Shay Totten On The Upcoming Budget Showdown

"Lawmakers want Douglas to spread the pain to political appointees, not just union staff."

“To those who say there are no tough cuts included in this budget,” [Rep. Michael Fisher] notes, “all I can say is they don’t know people affected by these cuts.”

Veto Victory — With a thunderstorm raging, lawmakers passed a $4.5 billion budget last Saturday night by a 91-52 margin. Will the guv veto the budget, prompting the legislature to reconvene and attempt to override it? Or will a budget deal be worked out behind closed doors, with a special session called to make it official?

House leaders say they have 99 votes in hand if an override showdown occurs. They need 100 if all 150 members are present. Several Democrats, Independents and Progressives who voted against the budget say they would vote to override a Douglas veto. Same goes in the Senate, where the vote was 18-10 in favor, with five Dems voting against the bill.

This show of House power almost ensures the guv has to come to the table or have a second veto overridden — and two in one session would surely be a major embarrassment. Douglas is used to having his way with legislative Democrats, so it must be a new position for him to be in — and an uncomfortable one, too.

Going into the next round of talks, a major sticking point for the Douglas team is the constraints it faces in finding labor-related savings. The guv’s guys also have problems with some of the taxes the legislature’s budget levies on wealthier Vermonters.

Lawmakers want Douglas to spread the pain to political appointees, not just union staff. If Douglas can’t find $1.3 million in savings from private contracts and $13.4 million in staff savings, lawmakers want to see a cost-cutting plan presented to the Joint Fiscal Committee by June 10, as well as a detailed list of the layoffs. The JFC is a powerful, 10-person panel that makes money decisions while the legislature is on break.

That might be an intrusion on the guv’s authority, noted Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who has been in on the budget talks. Labor savings plans are not normally approved by the legislature.

“The governor has moved and showed a willingness to move on a couple of very difficult issues for him,” said the lite guv, noting that less than $20 million seems to separate the two sides in an overall $4.5 billion budget.

“It would be important to come to an agreement today because the issues are not going to get easier moving forward,” noted Dubie.

Democratic lawmakers say they’ve gone as far as they can without losing support in their caucuses. Case in point: Prior to Saturday’s vote, about 15 to 20 members of the Democratic caucus withheld support for leadership’s spending plan as they believed the combo of cuts and taxes hit the poor harder than the wealthy.

The budget includes $15 million in cuts to Medicaid programs, and another $8.4 million in cuts to the Agency of Human Services that affect the blind, disabled, elderly and the poor.

In all, lawmakers cut $423 million in spending to get through the next two years, said Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington), a member of the final budget conference committee. To do that they only raised $23.1 million in new revenue, and will work to collect $4.8 million in back taxes.

To say the legislature didn’t make tough choices isn’t accurate, said Rep. Mike Fisher (D-Lincoln), who says he almost didn’t support the final budget. “To those who say there are no tough cuts included in this budget,” he notes, “all I can say is they don’t know people affected by these cuts.”