The Speaker Runs for Cover

Well, that didn’t take long.

After steadfastly insisting that Vermont’s public sector pension plans urgently needed an immediate overhaul, House Speaker Jill Krowinski sounded the retreat Friday morning.

It stands to reason, considering the intense backlash her plan received since it was kinda-sorta unveiled on March 24. (Only nine days ago!) Krowinski has now fallen back on the lawmaker’s favorite way to defer tough decisions: a task force.

I guess the situation somehow got a lot less critical.

She deserves credit for gracefully abandoning an unsustainable position. But how did she not see this coming?

Krowinski is in her first term as speaker, but she’s no political newbie. She was then-speaker Gaye Symington’s chief of staff in the late 2000’s; she’s been in the Legislature for nine years, during which time she rocketed up the leadership ladder. She was assistant majority leader under Shap Smith and moved up to majority leader under Mitzi Johnson. After Johnson’s defeat last November, she easily outmaneuvered two rivals and won the speakership. She’s near the top of every list of future candidates for higher office.

And now, here she is, having been forced to cut bait on her first big policy initiative. It was the prudent thing to do, but how did someone so politically astute make such a colossal misjudgment?

Right now it seems like her political star has permanently dimmed. And maybe it has, but let’s not be hasty. In #vtpoli, water flows under the bridge very quickly. Remember in June of 2018, when Gov. Phil Scott nearly forced a state government shutdown by twice vetoing legislative budget plans, something no other governor has done? That was a hell of a way to kick off his first re-election bid. But it was rarely mentioned on the campaign trail, and he waltzed to an easy victory.

The immediate problem for Krowinski is how caucus members take this. I’d especially love to know what House Government Operations chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas is thinking. Her committee introduced the plan and held hours and hours of hearings on it. Copeland Hanzas never wavered in her support for the plan and the speaker’s call for immediate action. She had to preside over two public hearings, with witness after witness trashing the plan. I’d hate to see her email inbox or listen to her voice mail.

Copeland Hanzas was the good soldier in the front lines, only to have Krowinski run away when the going got tough. (Not for nothin’, Copeland Hanzas was one of the two lawmakers who ran for speaker and got beat by Krowinski.)

But she’s just number-one on a long list of caucus members with every reason to feel aggrieved. I’m sure every House Democrat got an earful from teachers and state employees in their districts. And it was all for nothing.

If Krowinski is as politically adroit as she’s supposed to be, she can bury this and rise above. But it’s not a great beginning to her speakership.

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