Being a Senator: A Lesson in Two Parts

2021 is a singularly difficult year to be a first-term lawmaker. You can’t get a feel of the place. You can’t have the casual conversations that make life easier. You can’t grab a colleague for a brief word of explanation about something that’s hard to understand.

That said, I have to note a couple of troubling passages in the maiden voyage of Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden. On two separate occasions last month, he acted less like a senator than like a state representative from a specific community. In hearings on Burlington-area transportation improvements and school funding, he spoke entirely on behalf of his hometown, South Burlington.

On February 19, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing (video available here) on potential improvements to I-89 in the Burlington area. Nothing’s happening imminently; the committee and VTrans are looking a few decades into the future, assessing options for handling traffic flows that will almost certainly increase from the already heavy volumes of today.

The committee and a VTrans official discussed options for making the Burlington area interchanges work better. One of the options is a new exit on I-89 at US-116/Hinesburg Road. This hypothetical Exit 12-B would provide a direct pipeline into South Burlington.

Well, Chittenden gave a strong (and rather parochial) endorsement to the 12-B idea.

“In my six-plus years on the South Burlington City Council, I’ve had many intelligent people offer that 12-B would open up and attract a lot of corporate investment,” he said. “I’ve heard the Googles and the Amazons that want to have a presence here in Vermont, they need easy access to the Interstate with those two tech parks [just off I-89]. That is one of the best ways we could spur economic growth in the state of Vermont.”

And specifically in South Burlington, which is expanding rapidly and trying to craft an identity of its own. (It’s in the process of creating the “city center” it’s never had, on Market Street off Dorset Street.)

The other two ideas were an upgrade to Exit 13, which would streamline access to I-189 eastward into South Burlington and westward to Shelburne Road, and an improved Exit 14, the interchange closes to UVM and downtown Burlington. Good arguments can be made that either of those options is better than 12-B for the entire Burlington area.

As a reminder, Sen. Chittenden does not represent his home town. He represents the entire county. Senators are supposed to take a broader view, a longer view. He should bear that in mind when making policy choices.

The second example was a little worse. The House and Senate are both considering implementation of a “pupil weighting” study (see my post on the House deliberations) that would significantly affect the distribution of school funding in Vermont. It would provide more funding to districts with lots of children in need of extra help, including districts with a lot of children in poverty or large New American populations, and small rural districts.

And it would inevitably disadvantage districts with more manageable populations, like South Burlington. Which greatly concerns the good Senator, as he explained in this weedy disquisition.

“The losing districts, this is gonna push their tax rates up to the point where they won’t pass their tax bills — or their school budgets,” Chittenden said in a February 23 joint hearing (video here) of the Senate Education and Finance Committees. “I live in South Burlington; over the last three years we have had five or six failed school budgets. My understanding of this weighting study, it’s not drawing any more revenue. If anything, it will lower — it could lower the tax rates for the ‘winning’ communities, and then the losing communities might just not approve their school budgets, which effectively would reduce the overall pie of dollars to then be spent on education.”

I’m not sure about the logic there. If South Burlington’s voters forced cutbacks in the school budget and hence lower tax rates, I guess that would very marginally affect the size of the overall pie. But what he’s really worried about is the effect on his hometown.

Here’s the thing. As a senator, Chittenden represents not only South Burlington, but also Winooski — a district that loses big-time under the present weighting system. So much so that if Winooski were to sue the state, the courts would likely rule in its favor and strike down the current system.

Alex Yin, a member of the Winooski school board, gave testimony at the hearing about the heavy burden his district has to bear. He made an urgent plea for a change in the weighting system.

Thomas Chittenden represents Yin and WInooski exactly as much as he represents South Burlington. He shouldn’t be casting his vote solely or primarily with his home community in mind. Senators are supposed to see things more broadly.

As did Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison. “I live in a district that would not necessarily benefit from implementing the weighting study,” she said. “And I have a lot of school districts that are concerned about how, or if, we’re going to do it. And I still think it’s the right thing to do, because I believe so firmly in education equity and opportunity for all kids.”

That’s how a senator ought to think.

I don’t necessarily blame the freshman senator for not immediately “getting it” in this weird pandemic session. But it’s a lesson he ought to learn, sooner rather than later.

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