Category Archives: Vermont House of Representatives

A Whole Lotta Scofflaws in High Places

Running update: Sen. Brian Campion, named below as having failed to file, did actually file. Four other lawmakers — Sen. Phil Baruth and Reps. Martin Lalonde, Emily Long and Seth Chase — say they zeroed out their accounts after the 2020 election and have neither raised nor spent more than $500 since, so they don’t have to file.

Updated update. I haven’t heard from any more lawmakers (so far), but I’ve written a second post explaining this exemption in more detail.

Well, if Jim Condos won’t do it, and Sarah Mearhoff won’t do it, I guess I have to.

Allow me to explain.

Last Friday, VTDigger’s always informative Final Reading kicked off with an item about lawmakers failing to abide by the law. Specifically, dozens of them have yet to file campaign finance reports that were due on March 15. Secretary of State Condos sent an email to lawmakers asking that they comply but refused to identify the scofflaws, saying “I can’t be their babysitter,” which kind of implies that they need one. Reporter Mearhoff also demurred from naming names, but teasingly said “I know who you are.”

Gee, and here I thought it was a reporter’s job to tell us what they know. Maybe space reasons? After all, the list of noncompliers is 69 names long. That’s almost 40% of the 180 “public servants” in the Legislature. Forty percent.

Mearhoff also reminded us that when the Legislature wrote the law, it refused to include any penalties for failing to file. That’s pretty standard fare for laws touching on their own interests; lawmakers jealously guard their privileges when it comes to campaign finance and ethics and reapportionment and such. Which leaves us with the plastic épée of public shaming, which rarely manages to penetrate a lawmaker’s skin.

Before I get to naming names, I should say that any mistakes are my responsibility and I will gladly make corrections if any of those listed below can show that they did, in fact, file as required by law. Also, this list was made on the morning of April 5; any reports filed after that are not reflected below.

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#MeToo Made Barely a Dent in the Statehouse

I hate to say it, but as far as the Vermont Statehouse is concerned, #MeToo kind of was a fad. At the time, there was talk of serious changes; but in the end, the dynamic is essentially unchanged. From the viewpoint of those enduring harassment, the process is entirely in the hands of lawmakers, there is far more opacity than transparency, and as a result, the process is gathering dust and cobwebs ’cause ain’t nobody using it.

That means one of two things: Sexual harassment is a thing of the past, or the process inspires so little faith that nobody dares to use it. From informal conversations, I can tell you it’s the latter.

This issue hit the front burner thanks to a November 2017 article written by the great Alicia Freese, published about six weeks after the Harvey Weinstein case went nuclear. Freese got female Statehouse staffers and lobbyists to talk about their bad experiences — without names attached due to fear of reprisals. The conclusion: Sexual harassment was simply part of the atmosphere, something they had to be prepared for every day. The incidents ranged from inappropriate comments to propositions to actual assaults.

Afterward, legislative leaders asked the Office of Legislative Counsel (then spelled “Council”) to review Statehouse sexual harassment policy. A month later, Leg Counsel “flagged a dozen significant concerns,” according to a follow-up story by Freese. Chief among the concerns: The panels were made up entirely of lawmakers who might be seen as unfair judges of their own colleagues; complainants were told to confront their (alleged) abuser before filing a formal complaint, which is all kinds of awful; the accused lawmaker had more say in how the case was adjudicated than the complainant; and there was absolutely no transparency to the process.

In the wake of the Leg Counsel memo, then-House speaker Mitzi Johnson promised to institute a “gold standard” policy that would serve as a national example of how to prevent sexual harassment.

Indeed, the Legislature did adopt a reformed process — but the result was a real mixed bag. The bullshit about confronting your abuser was deep-sixed and complainants were given somewhat more say in the process, but the panels are still made up entirely of lawmakers and the process is almost entirely shielded from public view.

I wouldn’t call it a gold standard. Pewter, maybe. The proof: The new policy has gone almost entirely unused, while the work environment remains unfriendly to female staff and lobbyists.

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Waiting for the Catfight

Leadership Negotiation. (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

So I have yet to weigh in on “Vermont Has Her Back,” the petition drive seeking gender equity in the state’s media corps. Until now.

I certainly agree with the substance of the letter. There are too many men and not enough women (or people of color, ftm) in the political reporting sphere and, perhaps even worse, on the editorial plane. (Editors make assignments and have final review of stories.) This isn’t a matter of overt misogyny; it’s the result of structural barriers and unconscious bias in hiring and promotion.

(Not addressed in the letter are similar and even more impactful biases in our politics. Something must be wrong (and not just with our media) when Vermont has yet to send a woman to Congress, while New Hampshire ‘s delegation has three women and one man — and not that long ago, all four were women. Plus the governor. Vermont offers a stark contrast.)

The unconscious bias is becoming apparent in coverage of legislative leadership. Now that the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem are both women, the press is on high alert for signs of discord between the two.

A catfight, in other words.

Jill Krowinski and Becca Balint are doing their best to create a positive House/Senate relationship, but differences will inevitably surface. The two leaders will be under intense scrutiny over how they handle conflict. Opportunities for sexist blather will abound.

We’re already getting a little taste.

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Arise, Teen Selfie Stars

Climate activist and current darling of the free world Greta Thunberg has had enough of your adulation.

Everywhere I have been the situation is more or less same. The people in power, their beautiful words are the same. The number of politicians and celebrities who want to take selfies with us are the same. The empty promises are the same. The lies are the same, and the inaction is the same. Nowhere have I found anyone in power who dares to tell it like it is, because no matter where you are, even that burden they leave to us, us teenagers, us children.

She said that last Friday, at a climate strike rally in New York City. And she’s dead right. Thunberg’s critics have been thoroughly condescending about this pigtailed teenager telling us how to run the world — and her supporters have offered a more subtle form of condescension. There’s an undercurrent of “how cute” and “isn’t it amazing that this teenager is so bright, so committed?” not unlike when Joe Biden called Barack Obama clean and articulate, as if that’s surprising to see in a black man. We applaud Thunberg, we get a selfie, maybe we even give her the Nobel Peace Prize, and we feel like we’ve made a statement on the world’s climate crisis.

When, in fact, we’ve done jack shit. Thunberg made this even more explicit in her Sunday address at the United Nations:

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

It may be time for Vermont’s own teen selfie stars to adopt the same attitude.

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A little target practice for Mitzi Johnson

A moment of silence for the advancement hopes of Linda Myers, veteran Republican lawmaker now offered up as her caucus’ sacrificial lamb. House Minority Leader Don Turner promised a challenger to Speaker-in-Waiting Mitzi Johnson; it just isn’t possible that the 76-year-old Myers was the first name on his list.

Nothing against Ms. Myers, a pillar of her community and, by all accounts, a good person. But when I consulted The Google for traces of legislative accomplishment or leadership, I found astonishingly little.

As far as I can tell, she’s never held a position in the Republican caucus leadership, which tells you a lot about how she’s perceived by her colleagues. She’s been “parked for years” (in the words of one Statehouse observer) as vice chair of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, her service not terribly memorable but not malign enough to prompt her removal.

Well, I hope she enjoyed her vice chairship; after she loses the race for Speaker, she might very well lose the position. (A desirable post, since the committee oversees capital expenditures.) More often than not, there are consequences for such a challenge.

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Big donors, big money in targeted House districts

Two years ago, the Republican State Leadership Committee funneled $370,000 into Vermont, backing candidates in close races for the Vermont House. The VTGOP won several of those seats and took away the Democrats’ supermajority status.

So far this year, the RSLC has spent a lot less. But a handful of closer-to-home moneybags have taken matters into their own hands. They’ve donated more than $100,000 to individual Republican House candidates and House Minority Leader Don Turner’s political action committee.

In the small-dollar world of State House campaigns, that’s a huge amount of money.

First, a hat tip to Green Mountain Daily’s Sue Prent, who reported on the Franklin County iteration of this phenomenon a couple weeks ago. Turns out, it’s only part of a bigger pattern. But because the money is broadly dispersed, the pattern has attracted little attention.

Two of the donors are familiar names to anyone who follows Vermont politics. The other two might be new to you.

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Last one out of House leadership, turn out the lights

Welp. Earlier this week, House Democratic caucus stalwart Tim Jerman announced he wouldn’t run for re-election. Today, Tony Klein, longtime chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, did the same. And since he’s actually my State Rep and I made some comments about Jerman, I’d better do the same for Klein.

Clearly, the Dr. Evil Lookalike Contest will be a wide-open affair in next year’s caucus. Otherwise, the House is losing a staunch advocate for renewable energy. Which, in some people’s eyes, really does make him Dr. Evil. For me, he’s a champion who has worked hard, and mostly quietly, to keep Vermont progressing toward a renewable future.

He told Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck that he actually made the decision early this year, but waited until the session was further along before going public. The timing will allow potential candidates to make plans before the late-May filing deadline.

He will have one more Sisyphean task to complete: trying to clean up the hash of an energy siting bill passed by the Senate last week. I bet he’s looking forward to a close examination of that turd. (On that note, he told VTDigger that he hopes to “remain involved in the energy field and the solid waste field.” Yeah, he’s been shoveling the manure for quite a few years now.)

But he’s used to it, and he faces legislative challenges with a smile and the occasional sarcastic remark.

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The House Clerk: Maybe this is okay, but it sure doesn’t look like it

Earlier this week, VTDigger’s Morgan True broke the story that the newly-elected State House Clerk, William MaGill, was voluntarily disbarred less than a year before his elevation. Yes, he lost his license to practice law because of ethical breaches.

MaGill had served as Assistant Clerk; and during the last two Legislative sessions, True reports, he “served as the de-facto House Clerk as his predecessor Don Milne struggled with health problems.” By all accounts he has done a good job, and the House Clerk doesn’t need to be a lawyer.

But whether or not MaGill’s professional failings are germane to his current post, I think it’s safe to say that the process wasn’t handled at all well.

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2015 Legislature: Triumph of the B-sides

When I look back on this session of the Legislature, a strange thing keeps happening: over and over again, I’m reminded of a significant bill, and my reaction is “Oh yeah, that.”

RESET bill? Oh yeah, that.

Child protection? Oh yeah, that.

The gun bill? Oh yeah, that.

Consumer protection, including limits on rent-to-own stores? Oh yeah, that.

Same-day voter registration? Oh yeah, that.

Economic development? Oh yeah, that.

The legislative agenda was so top-heavy with high-profile issues — the budget, taxes, education, Lake Champlain — that a lot of normally headline-making issues flew more or less under the radar. Or were quickly dealt with and forgotten.

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Missed it by that much

Anne Donahue had a clever plan.

Notice I say “clever,” not “smart.” The Donahue amendment was a last-ditch attempt to derail H.98, the bill that would end the philosophical exemption for childhood vaccinations.

The amendment would have combined the philosophical and religious exemptions, and put more obstacles in the way of those seeking an exemption: reading educational materials, watching a video, having an in-person consultation with a health care practitioner. Donahue argued that these obstacles would achieve the goal of raising immunization rates without sacrificing parental choice.

It was clever because it played on lawmakers’ fears of taking a definitive stand, fears that are always amplified when there’s a loud and focused opposition.

It wasn’t smart because it would have done nothing to raise immunization rates.

I can say that with confidence because if the House had adopted the amendment, it would have been at odds with the Senate. With the Legislature careening toward adjournment and many pressing issues still unresolved, it’s a virtual certainty that H.98 would have been quietly shelved.

Of course, Donahue had to know that.

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