Tag Archives: Dick Sears

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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The Empire Strikes Back on Qualified Immunity

It appears that there will be a push in the state Legislature to end qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity makes it almost impossible to sue officers for use of excessive force; it’s become a target for reformers in the post-George Floyd era of, well, at least talking about police accountability.

It has the support of Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Sears, the single most influential gatekeeper on justice-related legislation. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint is also signed on, another big positive.

Michael Schirling, on the other hand, is here to tell you it’ll happen over his dead body.

At the Tuesday Covid briefing, Gov. Phil Scott fielded a question about ending QI by immediately tossing it to Schirling, his public safety commissioner and former chief of police in Burlington.

Schirling, speaking on behalf of the administration, made his position quite clear.

“We are gravely concerned about the impact of that potential legislation, and we’re working with a variety of partners and stakeholders to craft a cogent and comprehensive assessment for the Legislature of the potential impacts and downsides of proceeding in that fashion.”

You don’t usually get an administration official cranking it all the way up to “gravely concerned” at this point in the session. It’s usually something milder, like “we have concerns, but we’ll see where it goes.” In this case, Darth Schirling has been sent forth by Emperor Philpatine to make sure the bill never sees the light of day.

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Old Veepies Never Die, They Just Get Stupider (UPDATED)

Note: Second item has a significant update. Press WILL be admitted to Winooski/Enosburg soccer game.

Oh, you thought you were done with this, did you? Yeah, my awards for stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sector have been on sabbatical lately — it’s been harder to see the funny this fall, mostly due to the ongoing pandemic. But here we are again! On the docket: Noblesse oblige at the homelessness protest, barring the media from a soccer match, an especially stupid Covid rationalization from Team Scott, and Bennington Justice rears its ugly head.

We have multiple awardees for the It Was Quite Literally The Least We Could Do Award. The recipients include Gov. Phil Scott, House Speaker Jill Krowinski, and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint. Brenda Siegel and Josh Lisenby, advocates for restoring the full emergency housing program, held what VTDigger helpfully called “a small rally” on Monday at the site of their Statehouse protest/campout. Apparently Siegel and Lisenby have cooties or something, because neither Krowinski nor Ballnt attended in person and Scott continues to resist meeting with them.

The Speaker and Pro Tem did issue a statement for Siegel to read, in which they endorsed full restoration of the program. Which is interesting since, as the governor points out on every occasion, they agreed to the springtime deal restricting the program. Nice of them to belatedly come down on the side of compassion. And while Scott could really use a spark of humanity, he refuses to meet with the advocates. But hey, as VTDigger put it, “they were granted an interview on Monday with Sean Brown, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.” Wow. “Granted an interview.” How noblesse oblige of them.

Brown reportedly said the administration would consider reopening the full program when/if (climate change, y’know) the weather gets really cold. Which tells you the administration sees this first and foremost as a PR problem. They want to be as stingy as possible, but they could do without pictures of freezing protesters or homeless people with hypothermia.

Onward and downward…

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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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Keep the Cameras On

The House and Senate have been discussing how and when to return to normal operations in the Statehouse. Media coverage has focused on ensuring that reporters have access to any meetings under the Golden Dome. And that’s important.

But there’s one thing that’s more important to far more people, and I haven’t heard beans about it lately.

After their return to the Statehouse, the Legislature should continue livestreaming all hearings and floor sessions, and archiving them all on YouTube.

This would be a bit of a logistical challenge; the committee rooms are cramped, and it’s tough to get a good angle that encompasses all parties. Decent audio quality is also an issue. But here’s the thing: There’s talk of setting up auxiliary rooms in the Statehouse where people could watch a hearing without being in the committee room. That would ease the habitual (and unhealthy) overcrowding at hearings, and provide access to those who feel a little iffy about breathing the same air as a couple dozen others in the teeth of cold and flu season.

Well, if they’re going to send video to auxiliary rooms, there is no reason on Earth why they can’t put the same feed on YouTube. No excuses.

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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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Bangs and Whimpers

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.

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Welp, Looks Like I Closed Out the Veepies a Bit Too Soon

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 of The 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.

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Senator Pukes on Her Own Shoes; Blames the Shoes

The good Senator, seeking guidance from the heavens. None was forthcoming.

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 during criminal 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 resolution eight 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.

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