Middle school teachers of literature often say that the first act of a play ends with a question mark, the second with an explanation point and the third with a period. Following this analogy, I would say we have reached the end of the second act with a resounding exclamation point coming from the chambers of the Senate.
The most interesting place to be right now is the Senate with the budget and the tax bill passing last week and the unified health care bill slated for this week. Parodying the voice of Hamlet: to tax dentists, or not to tax dentists; to increase taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters, or not to increase this tax; to increase the tax on cigarettes, (although “not to tax” was never considered) – by 27 cents as passed the House, or $1 as passed the Senate Finance Committee? Following seven amendments and heated debate, the tax bill passed, raising about $24.5 million in new taxes, which included a 53 cent tax hike on cigarettes and the dentists were, once again, spared.
In contrast, H.441, the appropriations bill, often referred to as “the big bill,” passed easily with only one dissenting vote, resolving the $176 million budget gap for 2012 with the largest cuts to human services.
These bills will return to the House this week where changes between the House and Senate-passed versions will be reconciled in the House Appropriations Committee for the budget bill and House Ways and Means for the tax bill. These committees will then have three or four options.
The first option is to concur with the Senate’s amended version and bring the bill back to the floor with a recommendation to pass the bill and send it on to the Governor for signature. The second option is to concur with further proposal of amendment. The bill goes back to the floor of the House where it must pass and then return to the Senate for approval.
The more likely option with bills that have undergone significant change would be that they do not concur with the version passed by the Senate. At this point, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate Pro Tempore John Campbell will each appoint three members from their respective chambers to a “committee of conference.” A fourth option is to do nothing. As this is the first year of the biennium, the committee can hold the bill and pick it up again in January. In the second year, any bill that has not been sent to the governor dies. This is not true for the budget in either year, however. The Legislature cannot adjourn until a budget is passed and sent to the Governor.
I have found this process not to be for the faint of heart. This process is set either by the Constitution or by the Joint Rules of the House and Senate and I have not seen any other alternative to get this work completed in a timely fashion. Nonetheless, major decisions can be made by a small handful of legislators and if you don’t keep your eyes open, tricky things can happen. Even though these committee meetings are all public, it is challenging to be in several places at the same time, thus it is important to have a very good network of contacts who are closely watching the different conference committees.
The original adjournment date was slated for May 7th with the option to add Saturdays and Mondays to our schedule to meet this deadline. Although there is great pressure to complete the universal health care bill and many, many others, the only bill that could truly delay adjournment is the budget bill.