Empty Chairs in the Vermont House

Note: In the few hours since I posted this piece, even more retirements have been made public. I have written a separate post with the new names; read it here.

The state House has 15 standing policy committees. One-third of them, at minimum, will have new chairs next session.

First to announce departure was Government Operations Chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas, now running for Secretary of State.

Then, as the 2022 session was in its closing days, four influential chairs announced their retirements. Health Care’s Bill Lippert, Human Services’ Ann Pugh, Education’s Kate Webb, and most recently, Ways & Means’ Janet Ancel. That’s a huge amount of experience to lose all at once. And we may have more retirements announced in coming days, as the May 26 filing deadline for major-party candidates is less than two weeks away.

You know, I wrote a piece last summer about how the Senate had a huge seniority issue. At the time, the average senator was 63.4 years old. And the average age of committee chairs was a remarkable 72.1. Some wires must have gotten crossed because clearly the message was delivered to the House, not the Senate.

How much experience is the House losing? Let us count the years.

At the end of her current term, Ann Pugh will have served in the House for 30 years, and as chair of Human Services for 28. Lippert is next in the Seniority Parade; he will end his service with 29 years in the House and 16 years as committee chair (eight years apiece at Health Care and Judiciary).

Ancel and Copeland Hanzas will have served 18 years apiece; Ancel is closing out 12 years as Ways & Means chair, while Copeland Hanzas has served two terms as Government Operations chair. Webb is the relative newbie, with 14 years in the House and four years as Education chair.

Add ’em all up, we’re losing 64 years of experience among committee chairs, and 109 years of legislative seniority.

(On the Republican side, the most noteworthy departure to date is Heidi Scheuermann, who’s represented Stowe for 16 years. She hasn’t had the chance to chair a committee because the Republicans are a perpetual minority, but she’s been a very capable lawmaker and a big loss for the Republican caucus.)

In the Senate, six sitting members are not seeking re-election. Weirdly enough, four of them are below that 63.4 average age. They include Pro Tem Becca Balint and Kesha Ram Hinsdale, both running for Congress, plus Josh Terenzini and Chris Pearson. The departees with substantial seniority are Anthony Pollina and Government Operations Chair Jeanette White.

Back to the House. The obvious question is why? Why so many senior members leaving at the same time? My best guess is pandemic fatigue. It’s been a rough two years for all of us. I have to imagine it’s been especially hard on chairs, between freshly urgent policy questions and running their committees remotely for almost two years.

Any legislative body — well, any human endeavor, really — needs a mix of youth and age, newcomers and veterans. The Senate is unbalanced in the direction of Old. The House’s transition threatens to go the other way. There’ll be a lot of new chairs next year. The role takes some getting used to.

It may be a bad thing, but there will be positives as well. The House Democratic Caucus has been stoppered for a while, and some young representatives have departed due (in part at least) to lack of opportunity for advancement. We’re going to get to see how the next generation handles things.

The most interesting, and most challenging, will be Ways & Means. That tsunami of federal Covid relief will seriously recede over the next two years. The state economy will suffer without the stimulative effect of those federal dollars. You have to think that budget writing and tax policy will be far more difficult in the next biennium than in the current one, when we’ve been able to spend freely and approve tax cuts.

The current vice chair of Ways & Means is Rep. Emilie Kornheiser of Brattleboro. To me, she’s one of the smartest and most dynamic people in the Statehouse. She would be a fascinating Ways & Means chair. There’s no guarantee that House leadership will move her up the chain rather than reshuffling the deck, but she’s in pole position. I’d love to see it.

But that’s an issue for the post-election period. For now, all we know is that there will be a bunch of new committee chairs in the House. With that comes both challenges and opportunities.


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