Category Archives: Vermont State House of Representatives

Storm Clouds Above the Statehouse

There is much to be said about Gov. Phil Scott suddenly pulling a voluntary paid family leave program. For instance, that he has never ever pushed this issue at all unless the Legislature is actively considering a universal program. This isn’t a principled position, it’s an artifice meant to draw votes away from the Dem/Prog caucuses.

But something else, something subtler but equally discomfiting, on my mind at the moment.

There are signs that the House-Senate tensions of past years are flaring back up again. If so, key legislation could fail because of differences between the two chambers, real or imaginary. If that happens, they’ll be disappointing the voters who elected record numbers of Dems expecting them to get stuff done.

This tension was minimized if not eliminated in the current biennium, thanks to the efforts of Krowinski and outgoing Pro Tem Becca Balint. It’d be a shame if Balint’s departure triggers a return of the bad old days.

The usual sniping between House and Senate is most often expressed in senators’ apparently innate sense of superiority. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen senators speak of state representatives as if they’re misbehaving kids on a school bus, and treat House legislation as if it’s toilet paper stuck to their shoes.

The most prominent example of the House-Senate tension has been the twin battles over paid family leave and raising the minimum wage. The House has preferred the former, the Senate the latter. The result: No paid leave program and woefully inadequate movement on minimum wage. On two occasions the Legislature has passed watered-down versions of a paid leave program and Scott has vetoed them. The inter-chamber differences have done much to frustrate progress toward enacting a strong paid leave program over Scott’s objections.

And now, here we are again with an apparent House-Senate rift on paid family leave.

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Get Ready for Fight Club in the Statehouse

The coming biennium may be the most combative in recent memory. The best comp might be Jim Douglas’ final years in office when he had huge budget battles with the Democratic Legislature and saw his veto of marriage equality overridden.

The stage is set. Phil Scott comfortably won re-election, and can rightly claim the overwhelming support of the Vermont electorate. Legislative leaders can equally assert a mandate, given the fact that the Democratic slash Progressive caucuses are at historic highs. Legislative leadership will have a nice margin for error on veto overrides.

On top of all that, the next couple of budget cycles are going to be tough. The federal tide of Covid relief funds has made it easy to pass budgets — until now. Tight budget times and both sides claiming mandates? That spells trouble by the bushelful.

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W2W4

Planning on a very short or nice long evening, sitting in front of my desktop hitting REFRESH on the Vermont vote count. Here are the things I’ll be watching for, in roughly descending order:

The #1 thing is whether the Democrats and Progressives can add to their supermajorities. They’ve already got a comfortable margin in the Senate, but they barely clear the bar in the House and could use a few more seats. More on that below; for now let’s go to the top of the ballot.

Scott/Siegel. Everybody expects Gov. Phil Scott will win a fourth term. Democrat Brenda Siegel has run a strong campaign, but it’s been underfunded and she’s had to climb a very tall mountain. The polls say Scott will win a majority of the Democratic voters which, need I repeat, means that those voters are not serious about advancing their party’s agenda.

I still give Siegel a puncher’s chance. If she does pull up short, I’ll be very interested in the margin of victory for Scott. How close can Siegel make it? How much of a dent has she put in Scott’s Teflon? Has she created a template for a future candidate with deeper pockets?

Otherwise, the statewide races are not going to be close. It’s hard to see anything but a Democratic sweep of U.S. Senate, Congress, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and treasurer. Bragging rights go to the Democratic candidate with the biggest win. I suspect that will be Mike Pieciak.

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Exit the Quiet Man

I’m not the best person to eulogize Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, whose death was announced by the Vermont Democratic Party this evening. But I do have some things to say, because I always had a soft spot in my heart for him.

Which is a bit strange, because he is the epitome of the kind of lawmaker I have little patience for. He’d represented Montpelier in the Legislature for 21 years; he was appointed in 2001 to succeed his late wife Karen. (He’d announced his retirement from the Legislature, but didn’t quite make it to the finish line.) He was elected time after time in contests that were over before they began, such was the power of his name and his place in the community. He was the founder of Onion River Sports, and he served in a plethora of roles in Montpelier city government and civic life.

I didn’t get to experience him in all his glory. By the time I started hanging out at the Statehouse, he was a quiet, genial presence with little to no policy profile. He rarely initiated any legislation, and rarely spoke in committee or on the floor.

In other words, he kind of occupied the seat without much apparent purpose. His very progressive city could have benefited from more energetic representation.

He ticks off all the bad boxes. Never won the seat on his own. Didn’t seem to do much or have any ideas. Stayed in office well beyond his sell-by date.

But hell, I liked the guy.

He was unfailingly friendly. He didn’t take himself too seriously. He was always up for a chat, and usually had smart, insightful things to say. He was a legitimate pillar of his community. He earned his popularity through service. In my limited experience, I never saw him act or speak out of meanness. If everyone were more like Warren Kitzmiller, this world would be a much better place.

Whenever I drive into Montpelier, I pass by his house on North Street. I once visited him there, and had a very nice conversation on his back deck. Maybe that’s why I took note of his house every time I passed by, and hoped he was doing well.

The drive down the hill will be a little sadder from now on. Many people will have much more reason to miss the guy and have much more comprehensive things to say about him. But I didn’t want to let his passing go by without comment. He was one of the good ones.

Governor Nice Guy Is Channelling His Inner Asshole Again

Gov. Phil Scott sent a letter to Legislative leaders on Thursday that was a tour de force of passive aggressiveness. In it, he said he was signing H.720 despite “a significant error” (italics his). What’s more, he alleged that this was just one of a series of unacceptably typo-ridden bills that has him questioning the Legislature’s basic competence.

As usual with his periodic coruscations of outrage, it’s overstated, mean-spirited and misses the point.

Funny thing for Mr. Nice Guy to be doing over and over again.

Scott felt compelled to express his displeasure despite the fact that the Legislature had already acknowledged the error and promised to fix it in 2023, via a well-established process to correct a bill that didn’t quite hit the bullseye.

The letter is pure condescension through and through. After slamming the Legislature over H.720, he goes on to infer that there were a bunch of bills with typos and mistakes. He doesn’t enumerate them, of course; I interpret that to mean it’s a pretty short list with picayune problems.

Scott concludes by expressing his hope that the 2023 Legislature “will resolve to have a better managed process with greater attention to detail.”

Well, la di da, Mr. Perfect.

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Do Our Lawmakers Deserve a Living Wage?

Legislator’s Salary (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

Amidst the continuing deluge of departures from the Vermont Legislature, a handful describe a troubling pattern. Two of our youngest state senators, Corey Parent and Joshua Terenzini, are not seeking re-election. Toss in Rep. Tim Briglin, the very accomplished chair of the House Energy & Technology Committee, and it once again looks like the Statehouse is purely a country for old folks.

As Briglin told VTDigger, “You gotta have a job. And I think that, you know, for somebody in their 20s and 30s and 40s, that’s even more excruciating.”

We pay our lawmakers a pittance. That’s a powerful disincentive for anyone short of retirement age. I’ve heard this over and over again from younger lawmakers: When they enter the Legislature, the clock starts ticking. If they’re not moving up the political ladder within a few years, they start looking for the exit. And it’s all about financial stability. Many of those people, very promising public servants, eventually moved on. This year we’re losing more of them.

Briglin and Parent each have two kids. Terenzini has four. Raising kids is expensive, even if you don’t factor in building a college fund. It also helps if you’re actually around the house after work instead of living in a Montpelier rental four nights a week. The Legislature, with its long hours and minuscule pay ($743 per week in session and nothing the rest of the year) doesn’t qualify.

As the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” We’re barely paying at all.

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Empty Chairs: Even More Than I Thought

It looks like 2022 will be The Year of Turnover. Not only in statewide offices, but also in the Legislature. Earlier today I wrote a post about the House losing five committee chairs; since then, I’ve learned of three more. Plus one more Senate chair. And other prominent figures as well.

The departing chairs: Carolyn Partridge of House Agriculture, Maxine Grad of Judiciary, Tim Briglin of House Energy and Technology, and Michael Sirotkin of Senate Economic Development.

Let’s take the House first. Even if there are no more retirements, nearly half of all House committees will have new chairs come January. Partridge will have served 24 years in the House and 12 as chair of Agriculture (the committee’s name has changed multiple times but always included Ag). Grad has 12 years in the House, eight as Judiciary chair. Briglin has been in the House for eight years and chaired E&T for four.

Add that to our previous toll of lost experience, and you get 92 years of departing chair tenure and 153 years in the House. The former figure is the one I’m focused on here; if you add all the House departures, you’ll get a much, much higher number for the latter.

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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.

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A Couple More Continents on the Wide World of Lobbying

When I set out to describe the contours of the Lobby World under the Golden Dome, I knew I’d forget some pieces. Well, here are a couple of biggies — underwritten by you and me, the taxpayers of Vermont: State officials, and agencies that receive state funding, are frequently in the Statehouse lobbying on behalf of their entity.

First and foremost, officials of the Executive Branch. Cabinet secretaries and departmental commissioners spend a lot of time in the Statehouse when the Legislature is in session. This is legitimate when they’re testifying before a committee, but most of their Statehouse activity consists of roaming the halls and the cafeteria, shaking hands and maybe twisting the odd arm. When hospitality professional Al Gobeille was Human Services Secretary, he seemed to be in the Statehouse every day.

And that’s nothing more than taxpayer-subsidized lobbying.

Administration lobbying is, in fact, the most pernicious and effective lobbying of all. Because the Legislature has few resources — if any — for independent information, they are largely dependent on the Executive Branch (and lobbyists) for input. Administration officials cultivate good relationships with lawmakers because it’s beneficial for them and their governor.

This is all a big feedback loop with the infamous “revolving door” between* elective office, officialdom and lobbying proper. Many of the key players have been on one side or the other, sometimes all three, and the relationships carry forward. (And, of course, they habituate the same watering holes and eateries in the evenings.) A long friendship won’t win you the day, but you’re assured of getting a friendly ear if nothing else.

*I know, I know, you can’t say “between” three things. But “among” doesn’t sound right either. What this is is a three-way revolving door, which would best be illustrated by M.C. Escher.

It’d be interesting but impossible — but interesting — to tally up all the hours that top administration officials spend in the Statehouse, assign a very generous executive-level hourly rate to the activity, and find out exactly how much lobbying we are directly paying for.

After the jump… lobbying by agencies that receive state funds… and a Senate study of the issue that maybe possibly never happened.

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Why I’m Not Doing the Thing I’m Not Doing

I’ve been doing something different this year. Or should I say not doing something. For the first time since probably 2016, I’ve paid very little attention to the modern version of the building pictured above.

The Statehouse.

The center of all things political, right?

Well, no, not really.

I began the 2022 session pursuing my old habits: Checking the weekly committee schedule to see which hearings I might want to audit. I made a list each week.

And then I ignored the list. After the first few weeks, I stopped bothering.

And I have to tell you, I think it’s improved my work as a political analyst. It’s given me a broader view, a much better perspective on the Vermont political scene.

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