Performative Lawmaking After All

Hey, remember when Senate President Pro Tem (and Congressional candidate) Becca Balint ended legislative efforts to pass a mask mandate? Because Gov. Phil Scott was certain to veto such a bill, she said pursuing the idea would be nothing but a “performative act.” As if it was a bad thing.

Well, late last week the curtain came down on not one, but two “performative acts” that were allowed to go on into the third month of the session before slinking off the stage. Both measures were co-sponsored by Balint and fellow Congressional candidate Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, among others. But most of the opprobrium falls to Balint for two reasons: She’s the boss, and she’s the one who decried performative lawmaking.

The two doomed bills would have established ranked choice voting in Vermont elections and put limits on qualified immunity for law enforcement personnel.

The RCV bill was introduced with great fanfare — and then got dumped into the circular file. Only a single committee hearing was held, and that didn’t happen until last Friday, the deadline day for bills to clear their committees. Not only were Balint and Ram Hinsdale among the eight co-sponsors, but they both appeared in a VPIRG video ad endorsing RCV with some urgency.

I have to say, if the leader of a legislative body feels that strongly about a bill, it would maybe have gotten more consideration. Unless her stance was more performance than substance, that is.

The bill ran afoul of Secretary of State Jim Condos, who raised what VTDigger called “last-minute objections” because his office was swamped with other work and wouldn’t be able to enact an RCV system. I have to say, that stinks like rotten fish. It’s hard to imagine that Condos was unaware of his own office’s workload earlier on, and that Senate leadership didn’t sound him out on the bill before the last minute.

It was also a little odd for prominent Democrats to come out in favor of RCV at all, since the Vermont Democratic Party has consistently sought to undermine the idea. The Dems still have hurt fee-fees over Burlington’s experiment with a system similar to RCV, and many party leaders low-key oppose the idea because it might boost the Progressive Party’s chances.

But Balint and Ram Hinsdale are both trying to position themselves in the left lane of Democratic politics, and RCV is a good issue for that.

And, well, if they endorse it but the bill goes nowhere, that’s kind of the best of both worlds, isn’t it?

As for qualified immunity, it was kind of a surprise entry on legislative leaders’ priority list. It was certain to draw intense opposition from the law enforcement community, which it did. And the fate of the bill could have been predicted from Day One.

Indeed, if there was a market for Statehouse gambling, the bookies would have put very long odds on RCV and QI advancing through the Legislature.

But it looked like it might be different this time. Senate Judiciary chair Dick Sears, usually a cautious fellow when it comes to cops and prosecutors, was behind the bill, and he carries a lot of weight. Committee member Phil Baruth also backed the bill.

But the other three Judiciary members are pretty strongly risk-averse when it comes to law enforcement. Democrats Alice Nitka and Jeanette White never, ever stick their necks out for anything. Republican Joe Benning often has an open mind when it comes to judicial reform because of his experience as a public defender — but it’s tough to imagine him voting to end qualified immunity.

So the Judiciary deck was stacked from the start, and everyone had to know that. Things didn’t improve any when the law enforcement community descended in force with dire predictions of doom, gloom, and mass resignations from police departments statewide.

So the bill to limit QI turned into a bill calling for… you guessed it… a study of the idea, plus a very watered-down reform based on a state Supreme Court decision.

It was all predictable. And it was all performative.

Now, back when Balint deep-sixed the mask mandate, I wrote that I disagreed with her dismissal of performative lawmaking. It definitely has its place in the scheme of things. There are times when it’s best to aim for the stars even if you don’t think you’ll score a bullseye. There are times when you act in the face of a veto threat, if only to draw a line between your party and the governor’s. “Performative” is a tool in the political/policymaking toolbox. Always has been, always will be.

But that’s not how Balint saw it in January. She might see it differently now.


1 thought on “Performative Lawmaking After All

  1. Shayne Spence

    The best way to tell that the RCV bill was performative is that at the same time as our esteemed Senators turned Congressional candidates were introducing their RCV bill, the House and Senate were conducting one of the worst gerrymanders of Vermont’s legislative districts in the history of our state.
    And nobody is even talking about it.


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