Stay out of the swamp

For the most part, Vermont has been spared the kind of the political dysfunction that has paralyzed Washington for an embarrassingly long time. But Montpelier is at risk of sliding in that direction if the current dispute between the governor and the Legislature ultimately leads to a veto.

A gubernatorial veto is a legitimate political tool, although it is rarely used. Both sides try to avoid a veto showdown because the loser usually comes out looking weaker, and who the winner will be is never a sure thing.

In the past, governors have used the veto to prevent a legislative action they didn’t like from becoming law. In the extremely rare cases of an appropriations bill veto, governors were trying to force some cuts when they thought the Legislature wanted to spend too much.

This year, for the first time in memory, the governor is threatening to veto the budget to force the Legislature to pass something he wants, outside of the budget—namely, the authority to negotiate a single contract with all Vermont teachers over the terms of their health insurance coverage.

The authority to negotiate teachers’ health insurance benefits is not intrinsically tied to the budget. The governor isn’t claiming that the budget is too big because it allocates too much for teachers’ health insurance. Rather, he’s threatening to hold the budget hostage unless the Legislature passes a bill that gives him powers he doesn’t currently have.

This is an ominous moment in Vermont politics. It is akin to the government shutdowns we’ve seen in Washington—both threatened and realized—over issues unrelated to the budget or the national debt. We don’t want to go there.

As a matter of sound fiscal policy, budget battles need to be confined to matters of government spending. If a governor thinks the appropriations bill is too big or allocates money for something that shouldn’t be funded, by all means he or she can veto the budget and fight it out with the Legislature. The same goes for revenue bills. If a governor doesn’t want to raise taxes, then veto the tax bill.

But it begins to smack of extortion when a governor starts threatening to kill bills out of spite or in an attempt to force the Legislature to do something unrelated to the bill under threat. It’s bad enough that Washington has sunk to such tactics. Vermont should stay out of that swamp.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on May 23, 2017 at 3:14 pm

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