MONTPELIER -- Legislators who had hoped to adjourn for the year were set to return to work Saturday after a night of sharp disagreement over a measure to require municipal and school employees who don't join their workplace union to pay for some of the union's services anyway.
Friday night stood in contrast to Thursday, when House and Senate negotiators on a budget for fiscal 2013.
The two chambers' spending plans were not far apart when negotiations began, but the Senate side had to jettison two policy amendments that body had tried to attach to the budget bill: a measure allowing child care workers to unionize and another directing the Public Service Board on how to handle ratepayer repayments connected
On Friday, House Republicans refused to go along with a planned suspension of legislative rules to pass a bill promoting consolidation of small schools after the Senate attached the so-called agency fee provision to it.
"We should be wrapping up the session as we stand here," Republican leader Donald Turner said Friday night at a hastily convened news conference. "However, big labor has entered the picture."
The fight was triggered when Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, rose with a point of order to complain about an editing error in the school consolidation bill. Under House rules, that meant a corrected version would need to be put on a calendar for Saturday giving notice
That could change if Republicans agree to a rules suspension on Saturday, but Turner was adamant that Republicans wouldn't go along with the agency fee provision.
The Senate and House gave final approval to a $5 billion budget, while a measure to ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas headed to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin's desk. Bills on school consolidation and allowing police to search a Health Department prescription drug database without a warrant appeared dead during the late afternoon, but efforts were under way later to revive them and hopes for them improved with a day to go.
In addition to the budget, lawmakers took final action on a miscellaneous tax bill whose most contentious provision appeared to be an effort by the House to impose a so-called cloud tax -- charging the state's 6 percent sales and use tax on software used via the Internet from remote locations. The Senate wanted to exempt cloud computing from the use tax, but House members argued that someone who, for example, buys tax preparation software at an office supply store pays the tax so the same should apply for accessing the software on a website.
The compromise was a moratorium from 2006 -- meaning those who paid the tax previously will get refunds -- and July 1, 2013, when the cloud tax is scheduled to kick back in.
Some of the most heated debates came on measures whose passage appeared uncertain at best as lawmakers broke up Friday night.
Shumlin had declared in his State of the State address in January that Vermont was in the midst of a prescription drug abuse epidemic and asked lawmakers to allow state police drug investigators to get information without a search warrant from a state Health Department database on what prescriptions Vermont doctors are writing for their patients. Backers said the measure would help crack down on doctor shopping by addicts and people who get multiple prescriptions and then sell drugs on the black market.
House negotiators on the bill refused to allow the searches without police first getting a search warrant from a judge. Rep. Ann Pugh, the lead House negotiator, urged her Senate counterparts to adopt other parts of the bill that she said would help address the prescription drug problem. Senators refused to give in to the House demand for search warrants -- or to adopt other parts of the bill without the provision allowing warrantless searches.
"It's dead," Sen. Richard Sears, the lead Senate negotiator, said of the bill late Friday afternoon. But negotiations resumed later aimed at saving other parts of the bill.
On other matters, lawmakers on Thursday agreed on a school immunization bill that maintains a philosophical exemption for parents who don't want to have their kids vaccinated. The Senate had passed a bill eliminating the exemption after public health officials complained that Vermont's immunization rates were dropping. The House accepted the conference committee report maintaining the exemption and stepping up public health education efforts on vaccines on a 133-6 vote.