Tag Archives: Jeanette White

Surrendering Before the First Shot is Fired, and Other Time-Honored Strategeries

One of the consistent themes running through recent Legislatures is Democratic majorities retreating in the face of the slightest pressure — sometimes, even before they feel any pressure at all.

The latest dispiritng entry in this Chronicle of FAIL is a House/Senate task force on public sector pensions. Despite a Democratic majority on the panel, the task force seems determined to rule out possible new revenue sources for the pension funds. If the panel has its way, employees and retirees would absorb the bulk of the pain in a pension reform plan.

As a reminder, both pension plans were massively underfunded from the early 90s to the mid 2000s. In recent years, pension managers issued overly rosy projections on investment returns. That combo platter of ineptitude has resulted in a massive shortfall in both pensions. The Task Force was created by the Legislature last spring, after a reform plan to from House leadership capsized upon launch.

That plan emphasized benefit cuts and higher payments by employees. Leadership abandoned it after furious blowback from the unions. Well, it now seems that the Task Force is bent on following the same course. Members are not even considering measures that Gov. Phil Scott might veto.

Remind me, what’s the difference between legislative Democrats and the Republican administration? Precious little in this case.

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Hey, the Most Pointless Job in State Government Is Open!

Let’s pour one out for Larry Novins, who just resigned as executive director of the Vermont State Ethics Commission. He earns full credit for lasting almost three years in a job with no resources, no power, and no real reason for existing besides allowing the Legislature to look like it gives a good goddamn about ethics.

Which, in reality, it doesn’t. Shame on all of ’em.

Novins’ departure was noted in a press release from the commission, which prompted absolutely zero coverage from the political press. It’s too bad, because he did his level best in service of a hopeless, thankless cause. That would be “governmental ethics in Vermont.” Nobody cares, man. Nobody cares.

The Ethics Commission has had a brief and undistinguished history, by design. It has managed to cling to existence despite the fact that it was clearly designed to fail, Norquist style. Its single accomplishment prompted a tsunami of negative reaction, and was ultimately scrubbed from the books.

And one other thing. All of the Commission’s work — all of it — is exempt from public records and open meetings law. If they did ever do anything, we wouldn’t know about it.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, here’s what Novins himself said in September 2019:

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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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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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It Shouldn’t Have Been This Hard

At the end of it all, the final vote was a formality.

On Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a very brief session on H.128, the bill that would ban the so-called “gay panic” defense in criminal trials. You know, the bill that passed the House 144 to one?

After many hearings full of farfetched hypotheticals and occasional racist-adjacent argumentation, the committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor.

So, a victory that shouldn’t have been so difficult to achieve. But in Senate committees with five members, one or two can really gum up the works.

The Thursday hearing was brief. There were two votes. The first was on an amendment to H.128 that would bar the defense at all phases of a criminal proceeding. The unamended version applied the ban only to the trial phase, still allowing for use of the defense at sentencing.

The amendment passed on a 3-2 vote, Sens. Joe Benning and Jeanette White voting “no.” Then the committee held a vote on the bill as amended, and that vote was unanimous.

The bill will almost certainly clear the full Senate with no trouble. But the committee dragged this out in a way that was hurtful to many. (Likely including Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, a member of the affected community.)

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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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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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Pearce Makes Her Case

Well, we didn’t get our first public face-off between State Treasurer Beth Pearce and the public sector unions on Thursday. But we did get a better sense of Pearce’s argument for cutting benefits in the face of growing unfunded liabilities in the state’s pension funds.

The Senate Government Operations Committee had set aside an hour and 45 minutes to hear from Pearce and the teachers’ and state employees’ unions. But Pearce’s presentation lasted almost an hour and a half. At that point, GovOps chair Jeanette White declared that there was “no time today to hear from the unions.” They’ll be back in the virtual witness chair as soon as next week.

That should be interesting. The unions haven’t exactly welcomed pension cuts in their public reactions, but they’d be well advised to come to the committee with some ideas of their own. Because the state of the pension funds — especially the teachers’ fund — is not good.

(Pearce’s PowerPoint presentation to the committee, and her full report on the state of the pensions, can be found on the GovOps website.)

And the unions ought to be prepared for this. According to Pearce, she’s been meeting with them “at least weekly since mid-December” to discuss what to do. She also held virtual town meetings with roughly 1,000 members of the Vermont-National Education Association and around 350 members of the Vermont State Employees Association. She told the committee she wanted the unions to be involved throughout the process.

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