Daily Archives: April 4, 2015

Your First Amendment right to be a complete weenie

A moment of Statehouse drama from Thursday, as captured in a series of Tweets.

First, to introduce the players. Shap Smith, Speaker of the House; Darcie Johnston, political consultant to lost conservative causes; and Shayne Spence, lesser functionary in the Ethan Allen Institute, available for parties and bar mitzvahs whenever Rob Roper has a schedule conflict.

And now, let’s go to the Tweets!

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Let’s briefly note the self-aggrandizing Tweet from Spence. Ooh! Threatened by the Speaker! What a rush!

That brings us to Shap’s reply, which may be a bit unclear because of Twitter’s unforgiving character limit. What he’s saying is that Spence wasn’t just filming the House chambers — he was doing so from the Senate seats, the row of ornately carved chairs with bright red cushions along the front wall of the House.

Of course, filming from there is “not typically allowed.” The video cameras are typically posted at one end of the balcony, far from the House floor and the podium. Bringing a video camera to the Senate seats is a brazen violation of protocol. But that’s what I’d expect from a self-important James O’Keefe wannabe who thinks he’s the living embodiment of everyone’s Constitutional rights.

And if you think that assessment is a little harsh, here is Spence’s rejoinder to Smith.

Yes indeed, Shayne, keeping the People’s House open is very important. But that has nothing to do with a narcissistic operative taking his camera wherever he damn well pleases.

Every legislative body has rules, procedures, and mores. Partly they help things run smoothly; partly they’re antiquated remainders of tradition. But they do nothing to prevent access, and they should be observed out of respect to the institution.

Let’s just hope he tries the same thing in the Senate, which has tighter rules than the House. He’ll be tossed without a moment’s hesitation.

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The Curious Case of House Bill 76

The 2015 legislative session has its share of contentious issues and extended wrangles (partisan and otherwise), but its single biggest mystery may be H. 76, a.k.a. the bill that would ban teacher strikes.

The latest turn came Friday, when the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee voted against the bill, three votes to five. All three Republicans voted in favor; the four Democrats and lone Progressive voted no. The bill had earlier passed the House Education Committee, but the Catchall Committee thought otherwise.

The bill goes on to the House floor in any case, but as committee vice-chair Tom Stevens says, his panel’s vote “raises flags, and people will want to listen to why one committee supported it and one committee didn’t.”

But to explore the full dimension of The Curious Case of House Bill 76, we must go back to its origin. It arose in a burst of deep concern over the putative plague of teacher strikes, which Vermont doesn’t have. We have very occasional teacher strikes. People with long memories, or who are looking for excuses to ban strikes, harken back to the Great Hinesburg Debacle of 1985, a truly disputatious strike with long ramifications.

But why did that suddenly provoke a torrent of urgency thirty years later? I haven’t heard a good explanation, especially considering the very full plate in front of the legislature already. When you’ve got Lake Champlain and health care and school funding and a huge budget gap to deal with, why put a stick into a hornet’s nest that isn’t bothering anyone?

Oh well. As originally outlined, the bill would have banned teacher strikes and the imposition of contract terms by school boards, and it would have sent unresolved disputes to binding arbitration. That was acceptable to the Vermont-NEA, and it’s a rare thing for a union to accept disarmament. Even bilateral disarmament. (Correction/redirect: The Vermont-NEA didn’t like the original bill much, but was willing to accept binding arbitration as part of the right deal. Last weekend its position hardened to complete opposition.)

But the school boards didn’t like binding arbitration as the endpoint. They wanted something softer. And the bill came before the House Education Committee with a suspiciously drawn-out process for resolving impasses — a process that could last as long as 18 months.

According to Stevens, the Education Committee took only three hours of testimony and made no amendments whatsoever before passing the bill on a very curious 8-3 vote. Some Democrats joined minority Republicans in the majority. Three Dems, including committee chair Dave Sharpe, voted no.

It’s not that often a bill passes a committee despite the opposition of its chair. It’s also not often that a bill passes with full support of the minority and only partial support from the majority.

The House General Etc. Committee then requested a whack at H. 76, and got it. This panel, which handles labor issues among other things, was looking to put binding arbitration back into the bill, making it equally punitive on both sides. That changed last weekend when the Vermont-NEA withdrew its support for a bill including binding arbitration. “The idea of trying to amend the bill ended right there,” Stevens says. He adds that the curious trajectory of H. 76 turned the union against the original idea:

[The Education Commitee bill] was not written with their input, and because you had no input, the comments that people would make like ‘This will make things better for school boards and unions’ don’t carry any weight because the unions didn’t participate in the conversation.

The union withdrawal also turned H. 76 from a bipartisan measure into a partisan one — and a partisan one with the backing of the minority party. It’s hard to see the full House adopting H. 76 over the Vermont-NEA’s objection, although stranger things have happened.

Which brings me to the central mysteries of H. 76:

— Why was there such a furor about teacher strikes in the first place?

— Why was H. 76 rewritten in haste and hustled through the Education Committee?

Here’s my two cents, and it’s nothing but a semi-informed guess. Legislative leadership knew they were going to pass a school funding and governance bill likely to displease the school boards. Ending teacher strikes was a convenient sop to the boards. But as the education bill evolved to include a fairly tight cap on school spending, the school boards could not have been pleased. Pehaps they wanted more.

This is where the H. 76 rewrite came in, according to me. The Education Committee giveth, and it taketh away. Or in this case, the take thing came first. I can envision backstage negotiations between the school boards and Democratic leaders: If we accept a spending cap, we get a strike ban without binding arbitration.

It’s purely speculative, but it explains a lot. It explains this year’s sudden angst over teacher strikes. It explains why Dave Sharpe allowed a rapidly rewritten bill to sail through his committee despite likely union opposition.

If true, it wasn’t much of a deal for the school boards. Union opposition almost certainly dooms the bill. Although, if you want to spin forward the conspiracy theory, maybe the boards traded away H. 76 in exchange for the substantially toothless spending cap that passed the full House this week.

Have I solved the mystery? I don’t know. A simpler explanation is that the bill just got tossed about in the turbulent seas of the current session, with leadership taking little notice and Sharpe too preoccupied with the big Education Bill to worry much about H. 76.

But my rococo version is a lot more fun.

Is there going to be a health care bill? Like, at all?

The clock is ticking on the 2015 legislative session. We’re less than a month away from the usual adjournment, and a passel of “big bills” is just now crossing from the House to the Senate. These include the tax and budget bills, school reform legislation, the water cleanup bill, and the RESET  renewable energy package.

Conspicuous by its absence from this roll call of heavy lifting: the health care bill. It’s been dramatically downsized, and is still being batted around among three House committees. This week, the Ways and Means Committee barely managed to achieve a majority on a financing package after a lot of hand-wringing and internal disagreement. The Health Care Committee produced a scaled-down version of reforms costing about $20 million per year. But the Appropriations Committee, which has to approve the reform spending, has yet to weigh in. Approps chair Mitzi Johnson says her panel will hear testimony on the bill next week.

If that committee takes any route besides endorsement of Health Care’s bill, there may be a fresh round of back-and-forth between those two panels, just as there was between Health Care and Ways and Means on the revenue package.

And then, sometime next week at the absolute soonest, the health care bill will make its way, bloodied, bruised and limping, to the House floor.

If not “the absolute soonest”? We’re getting awfully close to mid-April.

Frankly, it’d take an uncommon outbreak of consensus in the House and between House and Senate for a health care bill of any kind to achieve passage in this session.

There’s a flood-stage ice jam of legislation forming in the Senate. This morning I watched one committee chair working with his staffer to find time to accommodate long and growing lists of potential witnesses. Can we assemble early some days? Can we schedule Monday meetings, an unusual and undesirable step, especially for lawmakers from distant parts of the state? The thought in my mind was, how can they possibly get all this done?

Breaking that jam and moving major bills will depend on the Senate running uncharacteristically smoothly, with unusually effective leadership (cough*John Campbell*cough) and widespread voluntary ego-suppression in Vermont’s Most Self-Important Deliberative Body.

The health care bill, if it gets to the Senate in some form, will take its place in line behind the other Big Bills. Most importantly, it will be the last of the big revenue bills to hit the Senate, and who knows how much appetite they have for tax increases. There’s a significant cohort of moderate-to-conservative Senate Democrats that can diminish or kill any tax measures, and they may be out for blood after pretty much having to approve new money for Lake Champlain and to fill part of the budget gap.

From what I’ve heard, the Senate’s outlook is even more of a mystery this year than usual, and that’s saying something. Big picture, the odds appear to be against any meaningful health care reform getting through the legislature this year.

Which would be a bad thing in three important ways:

— The bill would reduce the sinfully large Medicaid gap. The Shumlin plan would substantially reduce it; the House Health Care plan would make a series dent, at least for primary care providers.

— The bill, in either form, includes more money for proven cost-saving strategies in Blueprint for Health and the Green Mountain Care Board. Continuing to bend the cost curve is crucial to the long-term success of the reform project.

— And third, for those who insist on the humanitarian angle, is that either bill would ease access for thousands of working poor Vermonters.

Lawmakers and legislative leadership know all this. If they didn’t, the bill wouldn’t have gotten as far as it has in a difficult year. Improving health care is a serious priority — but so are a lot of other things. It’d be a shame if health care fell victim to the legislature’s time crunch, but it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise.