Meet the New Senate, Distressingly Similar to the Old Senate

One of the younger members of the Vermont Senate (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

Well, it looked like the Vermont Senate (a.k.a. The State’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body) was in for something of a makeover. New leadership! All female! Two new members on the three-person Committee on Committees! An Actual PERSON OF COLOR!!!

But an irresistible undertow drags the Senate, like boats against the current, back ceaselessly into the past. (Finally, that liberal arts degree is paying off.)

Because the 2021-22 version of the Senate looks a lot like the 2019-20 edition. Lots of old folks in positions of authority, and the weight of tradition hanging like an iron albatross around its neck. Except that in some ways, it might be even worse.

It’s not the most promising of debuts for new President Pro Tem Becca Balint. But in her defense, this is far from your typical legislative year. The pandemic has forced the Legislature to meet remotely, which puts a damper on everything — and emphasizes the value of experience in committee leadership.

(Reminder: Each Senator serves on two committees.)

Still. Out of 14 standing committees, there’s a new chair on precisely one. And that one, former Education Committee chair Phil Baruth, (1) voluntarily vacated the post and (2) was, hard to believe, the youngest committee chair in the Senate. He turns 59 next month.

Last time I checked, the average Senate committee chair was 72 years old. Baruth’s successor Brian Campion brings down the average just a bit — although everybody else is another year older. It’s probably a wash.

There are some new, and younger, vice chairs. That would seem to indicate that some of our most senior Senators may be moving toward the exit in 2022. Relatively junior Senators Ruth Hardy, Andrew Perchlik and Cheryl Hooker are now vice chair of Health and Welfare, Transportation and Education respectively. And Baruth, vice chair of Judiciary, remains on the younger side of the demographic.

But that’s where the youth movement ends in committee leadership. Other vice chairs include longtime Social Security recipients Alice Nitka (Appropriations), Mark MacDonald (Finance),, Anthony Pollina (Government Operations), Dick McCormack (Institutions) and Dick Mazza (Rules).

This is, I write with a heavy sigh, business as usual. On top of all that, there are a few puzzling things about the new committee lineup.

First of all, there are seven Republicans in the 30-member body. That’s an increase of one from last session. Usually, one of the CoC’s toughest tasks is spreading that handful of Republicans among all the committees. Well, this time, there’s one committee with a Republican majority. That would be Institutions, whose major responsibility is the capital budget, i.e. state borrowing. Republican chair Joe Benning is joined by fellow Republicans Corey Parent and Russ Ingalls.

And the panel’s fourth member is might-as-well-be-Republican Dick Mazza. The only real Democrat is Dick McCormack. I think it’s safe to say that Sen. Michael Sirotkin’s hopes for a big new housing bond are out the window.

Two other committees feature ideologically conservative majorities, thanks to a combination of Republicans and centrist Democrats. Agriculture has Republicans Parent and Brian Collamore plus chair Bobby Starr, who has been a staunch opponent of tough rules on farm runoff in the long, difficult process of creating a waterways cleanup program. If there are any enviromental bills that touch on farming, Starr will have an even better chance of blocking them now.

And here’s a curiosity for a body with newly-installed female leadership (Pro Tem, Majority Leader Alison Clarkson and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray) and a female majority on the Committee on Committees (Balint, Gray, Mazza). Three of the 14 committees are all male.

The three are Agriculture, Institutions and Natural Resources.

In the 2019-20 biennium, only Natural Resources was all male. Don’t know why this particular committee is such a boys’ club. Is it something about peeing outdoors?

On the other hand, three committees will have female majorities: Economic Development, Health and Welfare, and Rules.

One could ask why the Senate’s 10 women are so unevenly distributed. (I would have, but Balint had no time for an interview Monday.) To be fair, the CoC has to balance a lot of factors in committee assignments, such as party, gender, geography, relevant professional knowledge, personal preference, and the fact that each Senator must serve on one morning committee and one afternoon. It’s a really tough task.

Speaking of geographic balance, a pair of oddities stand out in the new lineup. Both of Addison County’s Senators sit on Finance. Two of Rutland’s three are on Education. That’s a little unusual.

There are reasons to question the committee assignments this biennium, and there may be valid explanations for all of them. And first and foremost, there’s the aging cohort of committee chairs. Seniority can be a good thing, because it provides institutional memory. But it also fosters resistance to change, and that’s been a feature of the Senate more often than not.

I’ll also acknowledge that committee assignments don’t necessarily chisel legislative outcomes in stone. In the 2019-20 biennium, Mazza continued as Transportation chair, but then-Pro Tem Tim Ashe made it clear that he expected the panel to be at least somewhat progressive on climate change.

But Senate committee chairs wield heavy influence. If a chair is dead-set against a bill, it ain’t going anywhere.

Sometime, we will see a wave of Senate retirements. It could come in 2022, if some senior members committed to another term because of the pandemic. I remain hopeful that that day will come soon. Because for my money, there’s way too much resistance to change and an oversupply of institutional memory. And I could name several Senators who are well past their sell-by date.

3 thoughts on “Meet the New Senate, Distressingly Similar to the Old Senate

  1. Annette Smith

    I have the impression that Senators ask for their committee assignments. It may be that this time, they got what they asked for, leading to what you accurately describe.

    Reply
  2. Max

    Congratulations, you’ve experienced colorblindness for the last four years! The state senate has had an actual person of color for a while. His name is Randy Brock. Or do you only count liberal non-whites?

    Reply

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