Category Archives: Vermont State Senate

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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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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The Study Committee That Never Was

In the past, I have referred to legislative study committees as “the last refuge of legislative delay,” the fallback option when a bill that would actually do something gives lawmakers a raging case of the fantods. The Legislature has an insatiable appetite for creating study committees or task forces or, when they want to look as serious as possible, Blue Ribbon Commissions.

The appointed group then goes out and dutifully performs its task, and reports back to the Legislature — where the findings rarely, if ever, change anybody’s mind. More often than not, the report gets a warm reception followed by a quick trip to a dusty shelf.

There are exceptions; the panel on public sector pension reform did much to move a difficult process forward. But those cases are rare. Usually, formation of a study committee is just another way to kick the can down the road.

But I’ve come across a truly egregious example of a toothless study committee. I found one that seemingly never met, heard testimony, or gathered information, and never filed a report.

I’m talking about the Study Committee on Lobbying Activities of Organizations Receiving State Funds, organized by the state Senate in 2013 after some solons raised concerns with such organizations effectively using taxpayer funds on Statehouse lobbying.

I wrote about this in yesterday’s post exploring two continents on Lobby World. But there’s more to say about what happens when a study committee fails to achieve its purpose.

Which is, apparently, nothing at all.

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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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Senate Reapportionment, a.k.a. The Incumbency Protection Act of 2022

Random Unrelated Illustration

If there was ever any doubt that the state Senate is a club unto itself, well, a close look at the chamber’s likely reapportionment map will make things perfectly clear.

First, the circumstances: After weeks and weeks of vaguely-defined “discussion,” the committee burped out its map in a 26-minute-long hearing on Thursday. Seriously, before Thursday, the agenda for each of its previous 13 meetings merely said “Committee Discussion.” At least they were open hearings, I guess.

According to VTDigger, the hearing was not warned in advance as required by law, and the map wasn’t made public until after the hearing. A procedural fail to be sure, and a worrying one by a committee chaired by Sen. Jeanette White, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee. You know — the one that deals with open meetings and public records laws?

Aside from process flaws, the map itself is problematic in many ways. At virtually every turn, it bows the knee to incumbency — even when doing so is a setback for the Democratic Party. You know, the party that allegedly controls the process?

If this map is enacted, it will be harder for the Democrats to keep their Senate supermajority. It will help Republicans pick up some ground, but maybe not right away; and the new Chittenden County map is the best thing to happen to the Progressive Party since David Zuckerman became lieutenant governor. (It also gives the Republicans a real shot at a Chittenden seat for the first time since Diane Snelling left the chamber.)

The newly created, three-seat Chittenden Central district includes Winooski and part of Burlington. It seems custom-made to give the Progs a real shot at winning all three seats.

Looking at the committee lineup, this may have been a case of Prog/Dem Sen. Chris Pearson pulling one over on sleepy Democrats’ eyes. He was the only member from Chittenden County, which is weird in itself. There were four Dems on the committee: the barely-there Jeanette White, the almost-a-Republican Bobby Starr, everybody’s friend Alison Clarkson, and quiet second-termer Andrew Perchlik. The two Republicans were part-time Vermonter Brian Collamore and the politically savvy Randy Brock. In sheer political terms, Pearson and Brock could run rings around the other five.

And it sure looks like they did just that.

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Après Balint, La Sécheresse

The Vermont Senate’s seniority-heavy lineup is about to become a serious problem. That’s because current Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, seen above possibly contemplating the task of herding the caucus cats, is leaving the Senate to pursue a bid for Congress. And win or lose, she won’t be in the Senate beyond this term.

Which means the Senate will have to replace her no later than next January. And I’m here to tell you exactly how shallow the talent pool is. And that’s because so many senators have overstayed their sell-by dates.

Out of the 30 senators, a full 16 are basically too old to step into the top spot*. They’re not necessarily too old to be effective lawmakers, but they’re clearly on the downslope and I doubt that any of them would even want the job.

*For the record: Brock, Clarkson, Collamore, Cummings, Kitchel, Lyons, MacDonald, Mazza, McCormack, Nitka, Pollina, Sears, Sirotkin, Starr, White.

Before I get accused of ageism, let me expand on that cold assessment. Most of the senior senators are comfortable in their roles. They are not looking to take on a new level of responsibility. Heading the Senate caucus is a big, troublesome job. You’re always putting out fires or facing the press or twisting a fellow senator’s arm. It’s also something you tend to take on when you’re set on climbing the political ladder, not when you’re fat and happy.

Look at the last several Pro Tems. John Campbell was 47 years old when he assumed the office. Peter Shumlin and Peter Welch were in their primes, and clearly had their eyes on higher positions. There were a couple of short-time Republicans in the mid-90s; John H. Bloomer served from 1993-95; Stephen Webster succeeded him for a single term. Bloomer was 63 when he became Pro Tem; he had had a successful political career and would certainly had continued if he hadn’t been killed in a car crash in January 1995. Webster was 52 when he succeeded Bloomer; he would continue his political career well beyond his time as Pro Tem.

Before them, and four years of Peter Welch, there was Doug Racine, a relative youngster when he became Pro Tem. Tim Ashe was in his early 40s, and Balint was 53. All these folks, save Webster, were far younger than today’s cohort when they led the chamber. It’s no job for old men. It is a job for the ambitious. Of the past seven Pro Tems who survived their tenures, only two (Webster, Campbell) did not seek higher office. And Campbell got the job largely because of his lack of ambition; senior Senators had a very free hand under his, cough, “leadership.”

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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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