MONTPELIER — Democrat and Progressive lawmakers on Wednesday fell one vote short of overriding Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of a mandatory paid family leave plan that would have cost $29 million and been funded through a payroll tax on workers.
The vote tally came in at 99-51, falling just short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor and turn H.107 into law. Earlier in the month the Senate reached the threshold by a 20-9 vote.
During the afternoon session in the House of Representatives, lawmakers made their final pitches for and against the legislation.
One of the bill’s most ardent supporters, Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said the program would have helped raise the quality of life for many people in the state.
“This bill will help us make a Vermont where the tools to make a decent life are available to as many Vermonters as possible and to make the pursuit of that decent life a right, as we state in our constitution, and not a privilege,” he said.
Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, explained why he opposed the legislation.
“The issue here is not whether family paid leave is a good idea or not — I think probably everybody in this body believes it’s a good idea,” he said. “The question is whether we should pursue the governor’s proposal, which would provide that benefit for state employees with the ability of businesses and individuals to opt into that program, or is it to raise a $30 million payroll tax on tax-weary Vermonters.”
Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, spoke in favor of the bill.
“Today we have this opportunity to support the hardworking Vermonters and their families so they don’t have to choose between their job and caring for a family member,” she said. “We have the opportunity to support our businesses by offering them a low-cost way to provide much-needed benefits.”
She suggested the program takes the burden off of business owners to provide paid leave out of their own funds. She also said it will help with employee retention and loyalty.
Rep. Rob LaClair, R-Barre, suggested many Vermonters will pay for this program and will never see any benefit.
“We’re going to be asking people that are living on a fixed pension to contribute to something that most of them may never use,” he said. ” … The mandatory part of this is troubling to myself and a lot of others, so I do support the governor’s veto.”
He added that a voluntary program would have been likely, in his view, to gain near unanimous support from lawmakers.
Rep. Daniel Noyes, D-Wolcott, expressed his support by sharing a letter from a constituent who had to take care of an ailing mother with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Paid family leave would have allowed me to stay on my feet, time to problem-solve, and seek resources while being compensated, and ultimately return to my job as a trusted, trained, and valued employee,” the letter said.
Rep. Randall Szott, D-Pomfret, said the bill doesn’t go far enough, and he blamed the Senate,
“When big ideas get turned into feeble propositions in this building everyone seemingly becomes a Bruce Hornsby fan, and start singing ‘that’s just the way it is’ and some things will never change,” he said. “… We’re contemplating the wrong veto today; the veto this body should have fought tooth-and-nail against was the effective veto of the Senate when they essentially rewrote the bill.”
When the governor vetoed H.107 last Friday, he reminded lawmakers that his own proposal includes an agreement with the Vermont State Employees Union to provide 8,500 state employees with paid leave, but is voluntary for other Vermonters. He said requests for proposal have already been sent out to insurance companies to start covering these employees as of July 1, 2020.
“This approach gives the state flexibility, and we could always add to it, or even make it mandatory in the future if deemed necessary. But we’ll have a stronger foundation and tested administrative structure to build on,” he said in a statement. “I truly believe this is an approach that will make this important benefit available to Vermonters more quickly, and is a more economically and fiscally responsible — lower cost — path to getting where the Legislature proposes to go in H.107.”
Scott added that he doesn’t think the supporters of H.107 did their due diligence in regards to assessing the cost of implementing a new state bureaucracy.
This is the second time in three years that the governor has successfully vetoed a paid leave program. He vetoed similar legislation in 2018.