Tag Archives: Alison Clarkson

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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Wanted: A Few New State Senators. Or a Lot.

Well, I guess there’s at least one group with a worse seniority problem.

The Vermont Senate, as has been noted in this space, is a temple of tenure. It’s almost impossible to defeat a sitting senator; the only time we get a new one is when someone voluntarily retires. That rarely happens and, as a result, the Senate just keeps getting older and older.

How old? Average age of the 30 senators is 63.4 years. There are only five senators under age 50; there are 14 over 70, and 11 who are 75 and older. There are two others in their late 60s, which means we have a Senate majority past retirement age.

And the oldest wield the most power. The average age of the 11 policy committee chairs is 72.1. Brian Campion is the only policy chair under 64. Yep, that chamber loves it some seniority.

This has some unfortunate effects. First, there’s often an airless quality to the Senate’s work. It is an entity apart from the real world — or even those rambunctious young’uns in the House. (Senators often treat the House with open contempt.) Second, senators are often out of touch when discussing issues of concern to young people like digital technology, child care, substance use, rental housing, and workforce development. Third, well, it’s really hard to get the Senate to take a fresh look at anything or contemplate a change in How We’ve Always Done It.

Sure, tenure has its benefits. They know their way around the building, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Some, including Dick Sears, Bobby Starr, and Jane Kitchel, bring decades of experience and deep knowledge of their policy beats.

But in any organization, you want a mix of young and old, new and tenured. The Senate is terribly skewed toward age and seniority. It’s long past time for some serious turnover. Will 2022 be the year we get it? I sure hope so.

After the jump: Naming some names.

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Mailed Ballots: A Study in Legislative Timidity

A couple of weeks ago, the Senate Government Operations Committee approved S.15, a bill that would mandate mail-in ballots for November elections. On Wednesday, the panel was presented with an opportunity to make the mandate universal, applying to general elections, primaries, and Town Meeting Day.

(The only exception: Communities that hold actual town meetings would be exempt. Towns that use the Australian ballot for TMD questions would have to provide mail service to all voters.)

And the committee couldn’t back away fast enough. Members used every delaying tactic in the book, from straw-man punching to red herrings to gross exaggeration. It was so sad that the panel even balked at the last refuge of legislative delay, appointing a study committee!

Now, there was a bit of political gamesmanship involved on the part of Republican Sen. Corey Parent, who offered the amendment to S.15. If he was completely serious about the idea, he could have proposed it sooner. The deadline for policy bills to pass the Senate is this Friday, and it’s a stretch to think his amendment could get due consideration in Gov Ops and on the Senate floor.

But he did have a serious point, and I have to say I agree with him.

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Two incumbent Senators fail to make the environmental grade

Yet another slate of endorsements graces my inbox today. This time, from Vermont Conservation Voters, the nonprofit organization that lobbies the Legislature and educates voters on its environmental priorities.

VCV’s list focused on contested primaries in the House and Senate, “looking for candidates with demonstrated leadership on environmental issues,” according to VCV political director Lauren Hierl.

My cynical eye immediately turned to the absences on the list, and there are a couple of notable ones.

The group is not endorsing incumbent Democratic Senators Phil Baruth and Alice Nitka.

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They labored mightily and brought forth a mouse

Rarely have I felt so ambivalent about being right.

Last Friday, in my inaugural appearance on Vermont PBS’ “Vermont This Week,” host Mark Johnson asked the panel to predict the outcome of the marijuana debate in the House — a big change, a little change, or nothing at all.

The three of us all agreed on “little,” but I put my answer in two-word form: “Study commission.”

Take it away, distinguished lawmakers…

In the end, the chamber barely agreed to create a commission to study legalization. With the legislative session expected to end this week, marijuana legalization supporters conceded they’ve run out of time to try for more.

Hip, hip, hooray. Let’s hear it for representative democracy. The study commission: the Legislature’s favorite decision-avoidance technique.

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