Category Archives: Vermont State House of Representatives

A Curious Absence of Drama

As I wrote in my last post, this legislative session looked to be a difficult one at its onset. But there’s been a nearly complete lack of drama, as the House and Senate have made their way through allocating federal Covid relief aid, tackling Covid-related challenges, running the Big Bills smoothly through, and also addressing a notable number of issues that could easily have been kicked down the road till next year. As is common practice in the first year of a biennium.

It’s time to give House and Senate leadership a lot of credit for this. Things are getting done with no untimely eruptions, bruised feelings or twisted arms, no visible splits in the majority caucuses. No muss, no fuss.

What makes this more remarkable is that the two leaders, House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint , are each in their first year. Past leadership changes have usually brought rocky times in Year One. Houses-Senate relations get awfully tetchy.

Not this year. And that’s remarkable.

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An Excuse I Never Want to Hear Again

Congratulations to the Senate Judiciary Committee for moving quickly on H.225, the “bupe bill,” decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the opioid that’s used as an alternative to more dangerous drugs. Friday morning’s 5-0 vote was not a surprise; last Friday the committee took a straw poll and came up with the same unanimous count. The bill now heads to the full Senate, where it’s certain to win approval by a landslide.

It was only a couple weeks ago that Senate leadership was signaling a slow play on H.225. The bill had been consigned to the Rules Committee, a place where inconvenient bills go to die. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint issued a statement that threw some cold water on the bill:

We did not want to vote it out of Rules until we had a sense of how long testimony and due diligence would take. …The Chairs want to be certain that this bill will [address the opioid crisis].

Well, they got convinced in a hurry, and after very little testimony. Friday’s action came a couple days after the Senate Finance Committee’s forced march to craft a universal broadband bill — something that would usually take weeks, and would often be kicked down to the following year’s session. But legislative leadership was dead set on enacting a broadband bill this year, and now they’re on track to accomplish that ambitious task.

The broadband action followed Judiciary’s approval of H.128, the ban on the “gay panic” defense. That saga ended quickly and quietly, but only after committee members repeatedly made fools of themselves in trying to shoot down the bill.

So they’ve proven, over and over again, that they can meet an imminent deadline when properly motivated. Any seemingly insurmountable obstacle can be overcome. And now, you know what I never want to hear again? Leadership saying they can’t possibly act on an issue because there just isn’t enough time.

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Where Are the Real People?

Two Senate committees, Judiciary and Health & Welfare, held a joint hearing Thursday morning about H.225, the “bupe bill.” It would legalize small quantities of buprenorphine, an opioid that’s often used as a substitute for, or a path away from, more dangerous street opiates. It passed the House by a lopsided 126-to-19 margin.

The fact that the hearing happened at all was a positive development. Last we heard, the bill was stuck in Senate purgatory with leadership wondering if they had time to properly consider it. The shape and substance of the hearing seems to indicate that the Senate will act on the bill. (The two-part hearing can be viewed here and here on YouTube.)

For one thing, the two committees met jointly. That’s not something they do very often. For another, they heard from a broad spectrum of witnesses — and Judiciary has set aside time Friday morning for committee discussion. By legislative committee standards, this is warp speed. (Also, Judiciary seems to be offended, but effectively chastened, by unfavorable media coverage of its obstreperousness, including multiple rants in this space. Suddenly the committee is expediting a number of bills that passed the House by huge margins.)

The witness list leaned heavily toward representatives of the justice system. Otherwise there was one UVM doctor, two Scott administration officials, two people who deal professionally with substance use disorder treatment; and former candidate for governor and lieutenant governor Brenda Siegel, the only witness on the docket without some sort of official imprimatur.

To me, there were two striking things about this hearing. First, the witness list was short on people with actual experience with substance use disorder and recovery. Second, there was a nearly complete lack of “real people,” i.e. non-credentialed members of the public.

This is standard operating procedure for legislative hearings. They tend to feature a relative handful of lobbyists, advocates, public officials and the like. And I think this is a serious problem for the lawmaking process.

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The Statehouse Will Never Be the Same Again

Sad Boi.

Don’t know if it was the heavy security or the heavy snow that deterred the diehard Trumpers on Sunday, but the expected rally didn’t materialize. Now we have to worry about Inauguration Day, when the police will once again be out in force outside and inside the Statehouse.

That won’t be the end of it, of course. Whether the “Stop the Steal” crowd shows up on Wednesday or not, there’s still a lot of folks who think the election was rigged, and they’re angry about it. Most will be peaceful, but it only takes one. There will be an ongoing threat, which means heightened security around government buildings.

That means the Statehouse, as we knew and loved it, is a thing of the past. We’ve long been proud of the openness of The People’s House; the ability of anyone to just walk into the building or into a committee hearing or hobnob with legislators in the cafeteria, the governor and lieutenant governor holding open coffee hours for all comers. It’s just charming to be able to walk the halls and stumble across lawmakers and officeholders and public officials of every rank, and have casual conversations with them all.

It’s a certainty that there will be painful discussions about Statehouse security before lawmakers adjourn for the year. Out of an abundance of caution, new measures will be taken.

Ready for metal detectors at the entrances? A substantially augmented Capitol Police force, probably with body armor and guns? State troopers on hand during legislative work days? A tactical team on site? A lot more locked doors? Security checkpoints outside the House and Senate chambers? Limited or no access to all the hearing rooms unless you’re on the witness list? I mean, those committee meetings get really crowded and each room has only a single exit. Imagine being trapped in there with an armed wingnut.

Wait, I’m not finished. And I haven’t even gotten to the pandemic yet.

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Prepping for Disappointment

Well, the incoming leaders of the House and Senate are pouring buckets of cold water on any hopes of a progressive agenda in the next two years.

In some ways, this makes perfect sense. In others, it’s a continuation of the squishy-soft stylings of the outgoing leadership. And that’s disappointing for anyone who was looking forward to the possibility of change.

My former colleagues Xander Landen and Kit Norton have posted a legislative preview, and it’s chock full of Business As Usual — the kind of Democratic strategerizing that’s helped Phil Scott remain governor. Or, shall we say, done little to nothing to draw a clear contrast between Scott and the Dems.

Now, these are extraordinary times. And I have no quarrel with the idea that coronavirus will be first and foremost on the agenda until we’ve vaccinated our way back to normality. The budget alone could occupy the available time between now and adjournment.

So yeah, when Speaker-In-Waiting Jill Krowinski says her top priority is “to bring people together and create a plan of action to beat the virus and it needs to be a recovery plan that leaves no one behind,” I completely agree. Save for the grammatical tic.

But 2022 ought to be a completely different story.

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Winning the Speakership was the easy part

Congratulations to Mitzi Johnson, the apparent successor to Shap Smith as Speaker of the House. She pipped House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas at the post. And although her selection must be ratified by the Democratic caucus and then the full House, there’s no real doubt that she will win.

Johnson is whip-smart and highly capable. She was skillful at managing the House Appropriations Committee, which is a hell of a trick.

As for being Speaker, well, she’s about to discover how different and how difficult that job is.

Shap Smith made it look effortless, but there was constant furious activity below the waterline. He also enjoyed the support of an informal cadre of loyal House members who helped him keep tabs on the ebb and flow of lawmaking and the interpersonal dynamics that must be managed effectively if the House is to function. In that regard, a capable inner circle is just as important as the actual caucus leadership.

Johnson won’t have that. She may or may not realize the importance of having that. But the House is a somewhat random gathering of 150 willful souls with 150 agendas. And by “agendas,” i don’t mean policy; I mean unique admixtures of principle, practicality, intellect (or lack thereof), knowledge (or lack thereof), curiosity (or lack thereof), debts payable and receivable, and ludicrously overdeveloped senses of self-preservation..

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So, predictions.

Let’s get something out there up front. I suck at predictions. I’m not particularly plugged into The People or the political establishment of either party. I’m not a statistical expert; I can’t evaluate the polls for insights and/or flaws. I tend to let my heart get in the way. (Yes, I do have a heart. I’ve been tested.) In 2014, I confidently foresaw an easy re-election win for Peter Shumlin. Which is about the only real test for a would-be prognosticator in my roughly five years of being a Vermont Political Observer.

So stack up the disclaimers like firewood before I take a timorous tiptoe out on a short limb and say…

I think Sue Minter is our next governor.

It’ll be close. Might even need to be affirmed by the Legislature, should Bill Lee draw enough votes to keep her under 50 percent.

Up until three weeks ago, I thought Phil Scott would win. Since then, the momentum is all Minter’s.

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Two bites of the apple

The Progressive Party doesn’t have much of a ticket this year. Many of its candidates are running as Democrats because they stand a better chance of winning. Smart tactics in the short term, and something of a worry for Dems. They’re seeing previously “safe” seats peeled off by the Progs, potentially weakening their legislative caucuses.

This year, we have a new twist on that technique: Progressives running as Democrats, losing the primary, and then refiling as Progs for the same contest.

There are four such candidates (that I know of), all running for the House, and all in “safe” Democratic districts. The Two-Biters:

— Jill Charbonneau, Addison-1

— Steve May, Chittenden-1

— Marci Young, Lamoille-Washington

— Carl Etnier, Washington-5

This is of direct interest to me, because I live in one of those districts.

Each person must make up their own mind. Me personally, I’m disinclined to vote for a Two-Biter.

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Shap Sweeps House Honchos

House Speaker Shap Smith has put out an impressive, if not exactly unexpected, list of endorsements in his bid for lieutenant governor. They include the House Majority Leader, the Assistant Majority Leader, plus the chairs of twelve House committees. He already had the backing of a thirteenth chair — himself, head of House Rules.

The only two Shapstainers are Agriculture Committee chair Carolyn Partridge and Republican Transportation chair Patrick Brennan.

Two of the Shapbackers, Tony Klein and Bill Botzow, had previously endorsed Rep. Kesha Ram, but that was before Smith entered the race.

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Don Turner plays hardball

I don’t know if it’s the Hansen effect or what, but lately House Minority Leader Don Turner has adopted a more aggressive stance toward his job. Instead of loudly complaining about the maneuverings of the Democratic majority, he’s now finding opportunities to play the active obstructionist.

This is kind of a new thing in Vermont politics, and is of a piece with how Congressional Republicans act on the national stage.

Turner’s latest exercise in Human Speedbump concerns S.230, the energy siting bill vetoed last week by Governor Shumlin. He has reportedly crafted a “fix” to the bill that would allow him to sign it; but Turner is vowing to block passage in any way he can.

And it ain’t nothing but politics.

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