Turtle Season

In January, when a new legislative session begins, ambitious agendas are rolled out. Big bills are proposed. Committees are ready to get down to work. This year, hopes were especially high on the Dem/Prog side, thanks to their historically large majorities in the House and Senate.

And then stuff starts to happen. Things get complicated, or are perceived to be complicated. The days rush by like the old movie trope of a calendar’s pages flying in all directions. Now, suddenly, time is short, hopes are muted, compromises are made, bills are sidetracked, and the aspirations of a new session lay in tatters. Yes, it’s Disappointment Time.

Necessary stipulations: Lawmaking is hard. It takes thorough consideration. It takes time, a commodity that’s always in short supply. Building majority support is complicated work, even when a single party holds all the cards. The Vermont Democratic Party is not a monolith; lawmakers have their own beliefs and constituencies. Many a Democratic lawmaker would have been a Republican before the VTGOP went off the rails. Now they’re moderate Democrats who often don’t support the party’s agenda.

That said, the VDP puts forward a platform every two years and urges people to give them money and elect Democratic majorities so they can get stuff done, not so they can think about it and decide that maybe it’s not such a good idea after all and they need to give it more study. It’s definitely not so they can parrot Gov. Phil Scott’s assumptions about public policy, and there’s a hell of a lot of that going on right now.

So let’s take a look at some of the areas where the Brave Hopes of January have given way to the Turtling of March.

Emergency housing. The Democrats seem determined to back away from crafting a transition plan from current emergency measures to longer-term solutions. This, despite the fact that thousands of Vermonters are in danger of losing access to emergency housing. Too many Dems are accepting the governor’s assertion that yes, we feel sorry for the unhoused but providing shelter to everyone would be too darn expensive, I’m sure you understand. They are ignoring not only the human and moral dimensions of this, but the very real economic benefits of housing security.

The broader housing crisis. After much brave talk of the urgency of tackling our chronic (and worsening) housing shortage, the Senate’s omnibus housing bill is in danger of being sidetracked. The Senate Economic Development Etc. Committee approved S.100 unanimously, but it now sits in Senate Natural Resources and Energy where things aren’t looking good.

Paid family and medical leave. The state Senate appears poised to do what it’s been doing for years now: Derailing proposals for a broad, statewide paid leave program. Yesterday, Senate Appropriations Committee chair Jane Kitchel, who’d be very high on anyone’s list of Most Powerful Senators, went before Senate Health and Human Services proposing a combo pack of child care reform and a paid leave program limited to caring for a new child. Left out: Personal medical leave and caring for a non-kiddie family member. And her estimate of the cost of her stripped-down program seems ridiculously low.

Kitchel hadn’t even drafted legislation and was vague on some of the details, but HHS Chair Ginny Lyons greeted the plan with enthusiasm. To put it plainly, the fix is in. The House may still pass a comprehensive paid leave program, but it would run into a brick wall on the Senate side. Just a reminder that the Democrats have been touting paid leave in their legislative campaigns for years. Now we’re facing another failure to deliver.

Public funding for private schools. Democrats entered the session determined to avoid sending taxpayer dollars to private religious schools, a prospect opened up by federal court decisions. Bills were introduced that would have dramatically reformed Vermont’s system of tuitioning students from districts too small to run their own public schools. But the bills ran afoul of the powerful independent schools lobby, and the House Education Committee has deep-sixed the expansive legislation in favor of a much more modest reform effort. There’s some decent stuff in the committee bill but, as VTDigger reported, “it would also mean that public dollars would continue flowing to private religious schools.”

PCB testing in schools. Chalk up another one for House Education, which is considering a pause in Vermont’s effort to test all public school facilities for PCBs. That effort was launched after the Burlington school district had to shut down its high school due to PCB contamination. Last fall, the Legislature approved $3.5 million in emergency funds to jumpstart the effort. Since then, 22 schools have been tested and eight have tested positive, which would seem to emphasize the need to move forward. But Jill Briggs Campbell of the Education Agency says the state is developing a comprehensive plan on school construction, and a positive PCB finding is like “a grenade with the pin already pulled” that can blow up carefully-made plans. House Ed seems inclined to agree. Which means, I guess, that if you’re finding too many grenades you stop looking?

Addressing all the sheriff scandals. A bill pending in the Senate would make major changes in the antiquated sheriff’s system. Most notably, it would end the practice of sheriffs taking a cut from any contract they sign to provide police or security services. The sheriffs’ finely calibrated noses detected a rare trace of legislative defeat in the air, and proposed their own, much less impactful, set of reforms.

Well, now there’s a third version of the bill that would allow sheriffs to continue collecting a cut, but would bar them from spending it on themselves or department staff. That’s good, but the entire system needs to go. It encourages excessive contracting. We need to adequately fund sheriff’s departments so they aren’t incentivized to set up speed traps for paying communities. Or, just maybe, we need to do away with sheriffs altogether.

VEGI reform. When two House committee chairs from different parties co-sponsored H.10, a bill to reform the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative program, things were looking good for an overdue overhaul. But, you know, stuff happens, the vultures descend, well-intentioned people get cold feet, and now we’ve got ourselves a study bill.

Women’s prison replacement. The House equivalent of Jane Kitchel is Alice Emmons, chair of the House Corrections & Institutions Committee. Incredibly knowledgeable, and very comfortable with conventional wisdom. Her committee is considering plans to replace the really-needs-replacing-yesterday Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a.k.a. the Vermont women’s prison. The current facility has been running well below capacity, but the Scott administration wants to build big just in case there’s ever a boom in female inmates. Advocacy groups like the Vermont ACLU want a smaller facility, given current trends in justice reform and de-institutionalizing inmates whenever possible. In a March 2 hearing, Emmons told her committee not to focus so much on bed count, which sounds very much like she’s in the build-bigger camp.

Ending the priestly exemption for reporting child abuse. Current state law requires a wide range of professionals to report child abuse when they learn of it, even when they do so in a confidential setting. But it creates an exemption that seems expressly designed to give Catholic priests a pass if they hear of abuse in the confessional setting. Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Sears proposed a bill to end the priestly exemption. But it should become as a shock to absolutely no one to learn that, after a series of Catholic officials gave testimony, Sears hastily scuttled the bill.

There’s one big exception to all this bad news, and it’s around climate change. The full Senate has approved the Affordable Heat Act, and a Senate committee is proceeding with a bill requiring state pension funds to divest of fossil fuel stocks. The latter bill has been weakened, but it would still be a remarkable step after years and years of legislative Democrats opposing divestment.

But I caution that there’s a long way to go ā€” especially on the AHA. Two Senate Democrats voted “No” on the bill, and the Democratic caucus can’t afford to lose a single additional vote if it’s to override the expected gubernatorial veto. It’s unclear how AHA will fare in the House, but there are a lot of moderate Democrats from rural districts in the caucus and there’s a high-pressure campaign to derail the bill. Scare tactics about AHA’s cost are resonating. Many voters are worried. And there’s little sign of a countervailing PR campaign from Democratic lawmakers or the party itself.

I hate to say it, but I would not be at all surprised if we wound up with a rerun of last year, when the Clean Heat Standard lost an override attempt by a single vote ā€” from a moderate Democrat in a rural district.

IF the Dems manage to pull off the AHA, it’ll be a feather in their cap. If not, it’ll be one more entry in a depressing list of issues on which historic Democratic supermajorities are failing to deliver on major agenda items. It would be entirely in character with past performance, but one has to wonder: When do Democratic voters get sick and tired of the ever-yawning chasm between promise and performance?


6 thoughts on “Turtle Season

  1. deebat

    The SNRE completely ignored two separate task force reports advising against heavy reliance on biomass in the AHA. Burning trees for electricity actually causes more CO2 to spew into the atmosphere than coal. Environmentalists who actually read the bill and pay attention to creative emissions counting at McNeil are actually in agreement with fuel dealers (no small feat) that AHA should become a fossil itself.

  2. Thomas Hand

    Don’t forget about renewable energy! A couple of Dems have put forward H289, a bill that Scott would be proud of!

  3. Snafu

    Am not surprised at this as every election time the democrats promise this and that. Then the business and corporate lobbyists swoop in and all those promises are gone because they are “too expensive,” and the wealthy and corporate tax dodgers would have to pay their fare share. It’s always the same with the democrats. It’s already time to vote the bastards out.

  4. gunslingeress

    The Dem/Prog majority in the Legislature puts forth bills that are anything but serving the people. They serve an agenda that originates either in California or New York or the UN. Other bills had to had to do with targeting churches. They deserve to die in Committee. The people that proposed them served an agenda, not the people. The so-called “Affordable Heating Act” is one of those. Vermonters were not marching in the streets demanding this massive intrusion into their ability to live their own lives. The bills that serve only the liberal agenda should never have been proposed in the first place. Many of them are proposed by people with no idea what they are talking about. They just want to demonstrate how woke they are.


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