Category Archives: Vermont State Senate

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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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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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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Meet the New Senate, Distressingly Similar to the Old Senate

One of the younger members of the Vermont Senate (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

Well, it looked like the Vermont Senate (a.k.a. The State’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body) was in for something of a makeover. New leadership! All female! Two new members on the three-person Committee on Committees! An Actual PERSON OF COLOR!!!

But an irresistible undertow drags the Senate, like boats against the current, back ceaselessly into the past. (Finally, that liberal arts degree is paying off.)

Because the 2021-22 version of the Senate looks a lot like the 2019-20 edition. Lots of old folks in positions of authority, and the weight of tradition hanging like an iron albatross around its neck. Except that in some ways, it might be even worse.

It’s not the most promising of debuts for new President Pro Tem Becca Balint. But in her defense, this is far from your typical legislative year. The pandemic has forced the Legislature to meet remotely, which puts a damper on everything — and emphasizes the value of experience in committee leadership.

(Reminder: Each Senator serves on two committees.)

Still. Out of 14 standing committees, there’s a new chair on precisely one. And that one, former Education Committee chair Phil Baruth, (1) voluntarily vacated the post and (2) was, hard to believe, the youngest committee chair in the Senate. He turns 59 next month.

Last time I checked, the average Senate committee chair was 72 years old. Baruth’s successor Brian Campion brings down the average just a bit — although everybody else is another year older. It’s probably a wash.

There are some new, and younger, vice chairs. That would seem to indicate that some of our most senior Senators may be moving toward the exit in 2022. Relatively junior Senators Ruth Hardy, Andrew Perchlik and Cheryl Hooker are now vice chair of Health and Welfare, Transportation and Education respectively. And Baruth, vice chair of Judiciary, remains on the younger side of the demographic.

But that’s where the youth movement ends in committee leadership. Other vice chairs include longtime Social Security recipients Alice Nitka (Appropriations), Mark MacDonald (Finance),, Anthony Pollina (Government Operations), Dick McCormack (Institutions) and Dick Mazza (Rules).

This is, I write with a heavy sigh, business as usual. On top of all that, there are a few puzzling things about the new committee lineup.

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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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Two Out Of Three Ain’t Great

Democratic Lt. Gov. candidate Molly Gray kicked off the new week with an Endorse-O-Rama on the Statehouse lawn. She’s won the backing of 15 Democratic/Progressive Senators, including Senate Majority Leader (and President Pro Tem-in-waiting) Becca Balint.

Which is great. But it means she didn’t get endorsed by eight members of the majority caucus. Not so good.

The abstainers include fully half of Chittenden County’s delegation: unsuccessful Lite-Gov candidates slash grudge-nurturers Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram plus Michael Sirotkin. The rest include some of the most senior and most centrist of Senators: Bobby Starr, John Rodgers, Alice Nitka and Jeanette White.

The final absentee is the most surprising: Prog/Dem Anthony Pollina. I’ve tried to reach him, and will update this post if/when he returns my call.

The roster of Senate abstainers is not a good look. But it has more to do with the foibles of Vermont’s Worst Deliberative Body than it has to do with the merits or demerits of Young Ms. Gray.

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Where Are The Ashes Of Yesteryear?

Objects In The Mirror May Be Fuzzier Than They Appear

The following was written in 2003. I’d ask you to guess the author, but I’ve already given away that game.

I should be a Democrat. From Massachusetts, mother a teacher and father a civil servant, family of Kennedy-philes… I’ve got a long life of political activism ahead of me. My loyalties are to ideas and not a party, so if my energies are not going to the Dems, they’ll be going somewhere else.

… Younger people like myself can understand the importance of getting the message to different types of voters. But we also understand the nature of a chameleon, and we don’t want to vote for a leaf and elect a reptile.

That’s a short excerpt from “Letter from a Democratic Party Pooper, and it was indeed penned by Young Tim Ashe, progressive firebrand. The letter was included in Crossroads: The Future of American Politics, written in 2003 by the future governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. (This tidbit came to my attention courtesy of urban archeologist and Twitter buddy Ed Adrian.)

In the letter, Ashe bemoans the Democratic Party’s habit of tacking to the center. He certainly sounds like a former Bernie Sanders staffer and future Progressive Party officeholder. He doesn’t sound much like Ashe the Senate President Pro Tem, who’s known for cosseting the chamber’s old guard, a cadre of change-averse centrists.

So. Which Tim Ashe is running for lieutenant governor?

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For a minute, I thought this was a thing (and other senatorial thoughts)

This is a mailer sent to voters in the Chittenden County Senate district. It features three of the four incumbents who are seeking re-election, running as a ticket.

The fourth? Sen. Phil Baruth.

Hmm. Was he excised, like Trump from that Jeffrey Epstein photo on Fox News? Is he persona non grata?

Nope. No conspiracy, no coup, nothing juicy. In this pandemic season, he explained, “I made a pledge not to raise or spend any money. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for money when everybody’s finances have taken a massive hit.” And since taking part in the joint mailer would have cost a couple thousand dollars or so, he withdrew from the enterprise. In fact, just today he posted a message on Facebook about his decision.

It’s not entirely a selfless decision; two of the six seats are open, which increases the odds that the four incumbents will sail through a crowded Democratic field. Baruth feels confident he will survive the August vote. “If, after five cycles, I haven’t accrued enough goodwill [to win], maybe that’s for the best.”

He’s almost certainly right. I expect the four incumbents to be the top four finishers in the primary. As for the rest of the Chittenden County Senate field, handicapping the primary is a fool’s game. Normal campaigning is off the table, so how do people get their names out there? Judging by the mid-July finance reports, only one candidate has enough money to make a major media push.

Besides, this primary is a mystery. These affairs are usually low-key and low-turnout, but a massive number of Vermonters have requested absentee ballots. We could easily see a record turnout, which makes for an unpredictable election.

Even the campaign finance filings are harder than usual to interpret. Some candidates, like Baruth and Rep. Dylan Giambatista, who’s running for Senate, have eschewed fundraising. Many others have shifted to passive mode, accepting donations that come in but doing little or nothing to solicit funds.

But hey, the reports are there, so let’s give ’em a look.

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