Tag Archives: Becca Balint

Yes, the Legislature Will Challenge Scott’s Vetoes

Sen. Joe Benning addressing the media

It was a little like Old Home Week. Eleven of the 30 state Senators, none wearing a mask, gathered on the steps of the Statehouse Wednesday morning for a… live, in person PRESS CONFERENCE. Wowee.

Everyone was happy to be back together, and even happy to see a gaggle of reporters hoping to glean some actual news out of the occasion.

The cause for the gathering was a mutual wankfest recap of the Senate’s legislative record in the past session. Hearty congratulations all around, and seldom was heard a discouraging word. I’m sure the assembled solons would love for me to recap their lengthy list of accomplishments, but, well, not my job.

They did manage to make some news amidst all the mutual back-slapping. “We’ll be back for a veto session,” said Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, ending all doubt on that score. She said the House and Senate are likely to try to override all three (and counting) of Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes. Also, if time allows, the Legislature may try to pass a few bills that came just short of the finish line before adjournment. Balint didn’t offer any particulars; she was due to meet with House Speaker Jill Krowinski Wednesday afternoon to plan the session, which would probably happen later this month.

I’m glad to see that the Kumbaya stuff has its limits. Legislative leadership made a point of trying to maintain a good relationship with Gov. Phil Scott during the session, and that’s fine. It’s even better that they know there’s a time for the Kumbaya to end. And Scott struck the first blow with his three questionable vetoes. Good to see leadership respond appropriately. If they can actually override all three, they’ll be sending a strong message to the fifth floor.

Other news came courtesy of Senate Institutions Committee chair Sen. Joe Benning. He talked of preparations for reopening the Statehouse for the 2022 session.

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I Know Vermont Is the Land of Summer Camp, But All This “Kumbaya” Is Getting Ridiculous

This obligatory session-ender by VTDigger’s Xander Landen was so sticky-sweet that it should have had a warning label for diabetics. Everybody’s just getting along so well. Kind words all around, regardless of party.

Gov. Phil Scott, who has so far issued only one veto — an historic low for him — praised House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint: “It’s been a good dialogue, good discussion, very open, and they adhere to their word and everything’s been working fine.”

Balint said that she and Krowinski made progress on “establishing healthier patterns” in working with Scott, and she’s feeling “optimistic” about carrying the Kumbaya over to a 2022 session that will involve some touchy issues. Sen. Phil Baruth noted “historic” levels of tripartisan cooperation.

(There’s also a love-in involving Scott, Sen. Patrick Leahy and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. At his Tuesday presser, Scott all but endorsed Leahy for re-election in 2022, and Welch recently credited Scott with doing an “absolutely tremendous job” on Covid-19.)

Scott, Balint and Krowinski are right to feel satisfied. They avoided the intra- and inter-party battles of the past, and dealt with a number of issues successfully. And they had to do it remotely, which was tough on everyone.

But they also ducked some tough issues. Balint and Krowinski made a conscious effort to avoid sending Scott bills he was likely to veto. That might be a good short-term strategy for the pandemic session, but it’s the kind of thing that has made the Democratic majorities seem toothless throughout Scott’s governorship.

So, a good collegial session in 2021 probably won’t carry over to next year unless legislative leadership is willing to set aside a whole bunch of issues. And for strictly political reasons, that will be harder to do in an election year than in this extraordinary session.

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Sure Is Quiet Out There

A strange hush has fallen over the #vtpoli landscape. The Legislature is set to adjourn at the end of the week, and yet we hear no arguing, no complaining, no House/Senate or even Legislature/Governor sniping, no last-minute knifings of inconvenient bills. The governor hasn’t vetoed anything yet, and he’s barely made any veto threats.

This is looking like the quietest, least contentious session in years. Now, maybe this is a consequence of The Year Of Zoom, with reporters unable to lurk outside closed doors and buttonhole people in the hallways and trade rumors with lobbyists. But when you look at the available record, there’s no evidence of the usual endgame drama.

I mean, just look at VTDigger’s Bill Tracker. It shows no gubernatorial vetoes, five bills signed by Gov. Scott, four bills awaiting his action, 11 passed the House and Senate with differences being resolved*, and seven that have passed one chamber and not the other. The Bill Tracker is not comprehensive, but it is a thoughtful compilation of high-profile issues before the Legislature. And it shows a pretty decent record of accomplishment with few apparent flashpoints.

*Most differences are fairly minor, and agreement this week seems certain.

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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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Senate Looms Over Bupe Bill, Pillow in Hand

Funny thing happened when H.225, the bill to decriminalize possession of single doses of buprenorphine, moved over to the Senate after passing the House by a lopsided 126-19 margin. For those just tuning in, buprenorphine is a prescription opioid that can be used instead of riskier street drugs. Vermont’s death toll from overdoses has been climbing for years, and the decrim bill could save a lot of lives.

The bill reached the Senate on April 14. It was referred, not to the Health Care or Judiciary committees, but to the Rules Committee. It has languished there ever since, as the days in this session dwindle down to a precious few. (Legislative leaders are aiming for adjournment in mid-May which, despite the snow, is only three weeks away.)

And the Rules Committee has no meetings on its schedule.

This looks for all the world like a stalling tactic, as if leadership has decided (for whatever reason) to prevent the bill from reaching the Senate floor. And maybe that’s what it is, although Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says otherwise. Sort of.

“I’ve been meeting with the Chairs of Judiciary and Health & Welfare to try to find a path forward for this bill given the late date that it came over from the House. We did not want to vote it out of Rules until we had a sense of how long testimony and due diligence would take. Health & Welfare and Judiciary are planning a joint hearing on the bill this coming week. We know we are in the midst of a horrible surge in opioid-related deaths and we want to take all measures to help address this emergency. The Chairs want to be certain that this bill will have that impact.”

That’s a written statement received Thursday afternoon in response to my inquiry. Let’s take a closer look, and then invite an expert to make the case for immediate passage of H.225.

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The Reign of the Invisible Man

Harlan Sylvester, large and in charge (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

The House Democrats’ ill-considered pension reform plan was the icing on the cake, the topper in a series of events that expose the fundamentally centrist nature of the party and its officeholders.

And this I trace to the all-encompassing influence of one Harlan Sylvester.

For those just tuning in, Sylvester is a longtime money manager who shuns the limelight — but for decades, he has been the kingmaker of Vermont politics. You don’t get to the top of the heap without his blessing. And it sure seems like the modern Democratic Party has been fashioned according to his fiscally conservative taste.

There have been occasional press profiles about him, and they all describe him the same way. Peter Freyne, 2000: “Mr. Sylvester has had the cocked ear of Vermont governors going all the way back to Tom Salmon in the 1970s.” Freyne quoted then-UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson thusly: “Harlan loves conservative Democrats. He wants to erase the gap between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.”

Rutland Herald, 2002: “it was Harlan Sylvester’’s considerable influence and strategic skills that helped put [Republican Jim Douglas,] the apparent underdog candidate, in office.”

In 2010, Freyne’s successor Shay Totten described Sylvester as “The most powerful man in Vermont politics.” Totten also quoted Prof. Nelson: “He’s got access to people with real money, and those people with real money will invest in politicians who will protect their interests.”

So that’s Mr. Sylvester, who is in his late 80s but his power has not been visibly diminished. From what I’ve heard, he remains the power behind the throne.

And now let’s look at what the Democratic Party has become.

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It’s What I Do

Me. (Pretty Much As Illustrated)

Okay, so I offended some people with my post about sexist shadings, and the prospect of more to come, in the coverage of House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint. The complaints concerned the use of the term “catfight” and the accompanying illustration of two teenagers pulling each other’s hair. I’m accused of, essentially, committing exactly the offense I was criticizing in the post. For some, the use of “catfight” in such a context is out of bounds.

I can see your point of view. But if you’ve read me for any length of time at all, you’ll know It’s What I Do.

I’ve often described my blogger persona as 90% analyst/commentator and 10% poo-flinging monkey. I’ve sometimes upped the “monkey” percentage. I bring a certain fearlessness and wildness to a #vtpoli that is overly polite, reticent to offend anyone.

It’s great that our politics are not as destructive as the national version. But there are times when politeness simply won’t do the trick.

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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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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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