Rep. Anne Donahue
June 23, 2018
Was it only insider baseball, that doesn’t really matter?
I don’t think so. I think voters need to know about the very sad – shocking, even -- chain of events in our state’s House of Representatives Friday night.
Someone’s word has always meant something before. A commitment was a commitment. A handshake on an agreement could be counted on.
On Friday morning, the governor and the Speaker of the House, with the support of the minority leadership, finally reached a compromise on the question of the state’s property tax rates.
As in true compromise, both sides gave something. In fact, given the depth of the disagreement, both sides gave a lot in the interests of resolving the budget stalemate and acting in the best interests of the state rather than based on pride or saving face.
The governor agreed to allow the non-homestead tax rate to go up to the level proposed in the new Senate budget and tax bill, despite his resistance to any tax rate increase. The contested “one-time” lawsuit settlement funds would stay in the teacher’s retirement fund paydown.
The House Democratic leadership agreed to allow the expected surplus tax revenue coming in this year to be set aside in a 50-50 division: half to add to paying down the teacher retirement debt, and half to the Education Fund for next year, to potentially bring the non-homestead rate back down.
The amount of money involved is as of yet uncertain, and no legislature can bind the action of a future legislature. The governor was willing to accept in good faith that legislators returning next year would stand by the intent to use those revenues, once determined, to lower the tax rate.
No longer was there a proposal to use hoped-for future savings to pay for a tax rate reduction this year. This is applying actual money, after it is received.
But the House leadership was agreeing to have this surplus allocated for next year, despite its resistance to using surplus money to bring down a tax rate.
This agreement was due to come before the full House in the early afternoon. Suddenly, there was delay, after delay, after delay, for the House to be called to order.
Behind closed doors, leadership of the Senate was objecting to the terms of the agreement between the House Speaker and the governor and demanding that the Speaker back out of it.
So she did. She backed out of her agreement.
At that point, House Democratic leaders proposed a compromise of the compromise: divide the anticipated surplus three ways, between the retirement fund, the education fund, and the last third reverting to the general fund.
Chairs of the money committees (Appropriations and Ways and Means) asked their Republican members if they supported the revised deal as a midpoint between the governor and the Senate leadership. They did. The new proposal was unanimously supported by both committees.
Before bringing that proposal to the House floor, there were new cold feet: what if the Senate still didn’t accept it? What if the governor refused the revised division of the revenues?
So they reversed themselves again, and brought out a plan to essentially accept the Senate bill with only minor changes, ditching any compromises and turning their backs on both the agreement with the governor and with their own later proposal made to their Republican colleagues.
They did not ask for a vote of their own committees on the new plan; they knew they would have lost the unanimous support that they sought just hours before.
When an amendment was offered on the House floor to restore the language of the 3-way split compromise, they stood to oppose it, raising philosophical objections to the concept: the very concept that they had proposed to their committees just a few hours earlier.
When a stunned member of the committee asked for a brief recess to discuss this with his chair, the Speaker refused. In my 16 years in the House, this is the first time I have every seen any Speaker refuse a request for a brief recess.
The process was now well into the night, and some members had left. When the roll was called on the vote for restoring the 3-way split, the amendment lost on a 46-61 vote, meaning that 43 members were already absent. The voting on this year’s state budget and taxes combination bill was happening with barely more than the 100 constitutionally required members.
Disgusted by having had two agreements broken, some dozen or so Republicans were determined to not allow the process to continue, hoping that if the vote were deferred to Monday, cooler heads could prevail. Loss of the quorum would achieve that; they began leaving their seats.
The Speaker, seeing what was happening, rushed into the final vote, catching members off guard before anyone could ask if there was a quorum. (There was not – but if it is not challenged, it is presumed to exist.)
She made an error, though – and I give her the benefit of the doubt in terming it an error. She failed to call on the member who still had a pending amendment offered in advance in the calendar, the House minority leader.
He cried foul, and she said that the vote, once taken, could not be withdrawn and the amendment could no longer be offered.
The idea that an amendment would be blocked from being offered is something else that I have never seen in my entire time in the House.
The unfortunate outcome is that instead of merely finishing the ongoing process once a quorum is achieved again Monday, there will need to be a request for reconsideration of the vote, which is permitted by the rules. That starts consideration of the bill all over again.
The prelude to the chain of events on the voting was a challenge to the constitutionality of the bill itself. Our constitution is pretty clear: all tax bills must start in the House.
This tax bill came from the Senate (tacked onto a completely unrelated vital records bill, so that it had a House number on it.) There was an easy fix – take the exact language from the Senate but give it a new House bill number and add any approved amendments to that.
Why not do that? Apparently, fear that it would offend the Senate.
If it was simply a matter of numbers was there any consequence to leaving it with the same number as sent over by the Senate?
The Independent member from Barre City who challenged it thought so, as did I. The constitution sets up different roles for House and Senate. What seems inconsequential in one moment of expedience sets a precedent for the future.
The challenge failed, and we went forward with debate on the bill, but the deference to the Senate was a foreshadowing of that next debate, where the House decided to bow to the desires of, and control by, the Senate.
I believe in a system of government with the checks and balances that come when there is more than one party, forcing dialogue among different perspectives. But for it to function, there must be respect for the process and for all members.
That was not present on Friday night.
I don’t know what will happen next. It will essentially be in the hands of the Senate whether to further gamble with the state’s future by refusing to consider the compromise that had been reached with the governor.
I do know that when commitments made to accept a compromise are broken, the ability to reach compromises in the future is severely impaired. It also destroys the ability to trust that agreements made within the compromise – such as a commitment to future intent – can be relied on.
What I can only hope is that at some point in the future, we will be able to look back on Friday’s events as an aberration, and not as a start of a new era where rancor and distrust become the norm.
Please stay in touch as you hear about issues affecting you and to keep me informed about your views. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for the honor of representing you. My blog of legislative updates can be found at representativeannedonahue.blogspot.com.