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.
The Senate Judiciary Committee did it again Friday morning. After having put up a royal fuss about a bill that passed easily in the House, members quickly folded their tents and moved the bill along with maybe a change or two.
This time it was H.225, the bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of buprenorphine. The House had passed it overwhelmingly, but its fate in the Senate seemed uncertain. Now, suddenly, it looks like clear sailing.
The committee didn’t take a formal vote, because technically the bill is in the purview of the Rules Committee. But all five Judiciary members indicated support for H.225 with the addition of a two-year sunset provision. The bill would take effect upon passage and expire on July 1, 2023. Sens. Dick Sears and Joe Benning insisted on the sunset, because they have concerns about how the bill would work in real life.
Which is a bit absurd. The Legislature is always free to revisit any law that isn’t working as intended.
Break out the tiny violins for Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears, who’s just getting run ragged because the House has passsed sooooo many law and justice related bills.
After just a few minutes of discussion around the best language to use to redefine consent in Vermont, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, trailed off mid-sentence, “to be honest with you, I’m fried,” he said.
My first reaction was “Aww, poor baby.” But given the quality of Judiciary’s work lately, it might be best if they simply shut down for the year. The panel’s recent actions have made them worthy ofThe Kids in the Hall Award for Best Ensemble Performance in a Comedy Series.
Sears’ comment was reported by VTDigger’s Ellie French on Friday evening, shortly after I’d closed the books on the first ever Veepie Awards for Outstanding Stupidity on Public Display. The context was Judiciary’s struggles over H.183, which would enact several steps aimed at better enforcement of sexual violence.
The bill is such a tough nut to crack that the committee is threatening to basically gut it. Sen. Phil Baruth complained that “It’s not unusual for the House to put us in a position where we get things that are controversial or tough to deal with.”
Yeah, it was so controversial that it passed the House on a voice vote. Sheesh.
Break out the tiny violins for Sen. Jeanette White, who’s had a rough week and change. Her inflammatory comments at an April 2 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee went viral, and prompted an avalanche of critical emails and voice mails. One week later, she opened another committee hearing by reading a written statement that hit all the notes in the fakey bullshit “apology” playbook.
Yeah, it’s a shitshow. Strap in.
The committee was discussing H.128, a bill to ban the so-called “gay panic” defense, in which a defendant argues that their crime was excusable because of the gender identity of the victim. The argument has led to acquittals, convictions on lesser charges, and/or greatly reduced sentences – or should I simply say “gross miscarriages of justice.” The bill passed the House on a 144 to 1 vote. (For those keeping score at home, the only “No” vote came from Republican Rodney Graham.)
One hundred forty four. To one. Don’t forget that.
(At this point I’d like to mention the shining star of this clusterfuck: First-term Rep. Taylor Small, the bill’s co-sponsor. On April 9, she gave Senate Judiciary a clear, concise argument in favor of H.128, and did so in an unwaveringly respectful tone. And she may have actually swayed the outcome of the committee’s vote.)
The bill has run into trouble in Senate Judiciary, with two of its five members speaking against it and one — Alice Nitka — never uttering a word in committee deliberations. One opponent is Republican Joe Benning, a defense attorney by trade. He’s fine with a ban on the “gay panic” defense duringcriminal trials, but he wants it to be in play during the sentencing process. Not that he approves of the tactic; he’s just opposed to any limit on defense arguments at sentencing.
(I’d like to get one thing on the record here. Benning may oppose the ban, but the American Bar Association passed a resolutioneight years ago urging “federal, tribal, state, local and territorial governments to take legislative action to curtail the availability and effectiveness of the ‘gay panic’ and ‘trans panic’ defenses.” So his own profession’s largest organization doesn’t share his concern.)
The other opponent is Windham County Democrat Jeanette White. Here’s where things went off the rails.
Ah, Bennington. Gateway to southern Vermont. Scrappy little town with loads of history. A downtown worth an afternoon’s ramble. The Blue Benn Diner. Bakkerij Krijnen.
And a police department that may be the most racist in Vermont.
And a town government that steadfastly, blindly supports its racist police.
This time, the cops and the town have literally chased an interracial couple out of town. And the couple, with the help of the Vermont ACLU, has filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission.
The majority’s action was inspired by none other than Vermont Republican Party vice-chair (and former candidate for attorney general, thank God she lost) Deborah Bucknam.
You heard right. A top official of Phil Scott’s own party is peddling this brand of intellectual snake oil. Maybe someone will ask him about this at his next coronavirus presser.
And look who showed up to push this nonsense: Kevin Hoyt, Bennington’s number-one conservative nutcase. In a Facebook post, he said the vote makes Stamford “One of the first conservative autonomous zones in the Nation.” Love the brazen self-aggrandizement there.
Stamford’s action came after Bucknam posted an essay on — wait for it — True North Reports, arguing that Scott’s action violates the state constitution. Trigger Warning: You Might Lose a Few Dozen IQ Points By Reading This.
Vermont Statute Section 13(3) of Title 20 provides that the governor “shall” declare the state of emergency terminated in a municipality when the “majority of the legislative body of a municipality affected no longer desires that the state of emergency continue within its jurisdiction.”
… The terms “shall” mean that the governor has no discretion in this matter. He must terminate the state of emergency in the municipality when the majority of the selectboard or other legislative body no longer “desires” to be under a state of emergency.
There’s only one month to go until the August primary, and who knows how many absentee ballots already coming in, so maybe it’s no surprise that some collars are showing signs of tightening.
The above is a mailer sent by Senate President Pro Tem and candidate for lieutenant governor Tim Ashe, which seems expressly designed to draw a contrast between him and Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray.
Gray, for those just joining us, appeared seemingly out of nowhere and immediately started racking up big donations and big-name endorsements. Before her emergence, the safe money was on Ashe to ride his name recognition to a primary victory — and then a comfortable ride to election in November. But now? Not so much.
Ashe’s mailer screams about the need for EXPERIENCE in these troubled times. The kind of EXPERIENCE that makes a person fit to, uhhh, bang a gavel. It highlights three things about Ashe that can’t be said about Gray: experience as Pro Tem, experience passing legislation, and “my real-world economic development career.”
That notorious slacker Gray, by contrast, has frittered away her time working for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Attorney General T.J. Donovan, among others. She probably does scrapbooking or needlepoint in her spare time. Maybe jigsaw puzzles.
Ashe’s mailer doesn’t draw as neat a contrast with the other two Democrats in the race. His fellow Senator Debbie Ingram has plenty of experience on legislation. Activist and arts administrator Brenda Siegel has spent lots of time in the Statehouse working on legislation as an advocate.
A more direct attack on Gray came last week courtesy of VTDigger, which posted a story questioning her residency status — and pretty much settling the issue in her favor.
Here’s some rank speculation on my part: Somebody gave Digger a tip to pursue this angle. If this had been entirely Digger’s initiative, the story would have been done when Gray launched her campaign — after all, she went out of her way to highlight her international experience including her time away from Vermont.
I have not a shred of evidence pointing to Ashe or his minions as the source of the story. But the timing speaks for itself. And I really don’t see Ingram or Siegel resorting to trickery of any sort.
Bad news from down Bennington way, courtesy of The Banner:
With a two-paragraph note Thursday afternoon, a major Bennington employer for decades — Energizer — confirmed that the local factory will close.
Well, there go some nice manufacturing jobs in a community that’s taken more than its share of body blows. How many jobs is apparently a mystery; Energizer didn’t say, and The Banner couldn’t immediately find out. In 2015, the factory was downsized to an undisclosed extent (companies have learned to conceal the grim details of cutbacks and closings); at the time, per VTDigger, it employed “between 100 and 250 people.”
Sen. Dick Sears of Bennington learned of the plant’s closure — after the fact — in an email from a corporate stooge who offered hollow words of praise for “the years of productive engagement we have had with you and your office.”
That “productive engagement,” by the way, included a Vermont Training Program grant issued in April 2018 — only a year and a half ago. VTP provides taxpayer funds to cover up to 50 percent of training new workers or teaching new skills to existing workers.
I’m not sure, but I’m gonna guess here that Vermont had something a little more… uh, permanent in mind when it gave Energizer those dollars. Instead, the company didn’t even bother to inform state government until after it had publicly announced the plant closure.
I welcome Chris Pearson’s entry into the race for State Senate from Chittenden County. The Progressive state rep is the Progs’ sharpest policy voice in the House, and he should be a formidable candidate for Senate.
For those just joining us, the Chittenden County district elects six Senators, and it’s usually a free ride for incumbents. This time, two of the six seats will be voluntarily vacated; David Zuckerman is running for Lite-Gov, and Helen Riehle (appointed to fill out Diane Snelling’s term) is not running for a full term.
The openings are sure to attract a strong Democratic field, while Republicans are desperately searching for someone who might retain Snelling’s position. Searching in vain, methinks.
But the race on the left will be lively. It’ll be interesting to see how Pearson will fare in fundraising — I suspect he’ll do quite well. He’ll certainly have better name recognition than the Democratic non-incumbents.
And should he win, there is the potential for a real shift in Senatorial power.