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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Sumitted for your approval, three news stories on a common theme: What happens when government isn’t up to the task?
Two are about Covid-19 and nursing homes, which I will address in my next post. Under consideration here, courtesy of VTDigger’s Anne Wallace Allen, is a look at Vermont’s wretched rental housing stock. The headline, “About 7,000 Vermont households lack things like kitchens, bathrooms, or heat,” is a bit exaggerated. But the reality isn’t much better.
Nobody knows exactly how many Vermonters are living in substandard housing.
That 7,000 figure is an upper estimate, so the actual number of households without crucial features may be smaller. But the story’s gut-punch is that oversight of rental housing in Vermont is spotty at best, nonexistent at worst.
The state has a rental housing code but no enforcement mechanism. Several of our larger cities have code-enforcement systems. Elsewhere, it’s entirely up to town health officers. They’re usually untrained volunteers with few resources to conduct their business. James Arisman, who formerly served as Marshfield’s health officer, told VTDigger, “Essentially there is no protection for renters in the state of Vermont by an inspection system that is robust and carrying out routine inspections.”
Yeah, that seems a little problematic.
There are plenty of appalling details, but let’s leave it here: How did we get to the year 2020 with such an archaic “system”? It’s yet another example of the Grandfather’s Lightbulb phenomenon. To wit:
Q: How many Vermonters does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Change it? That was my grandfather’s lightbulb!
Democratic Lt. Gov. candidate Molly Gray kicked off the new week with an Endorse-O-Rama on the Statehouse lawn. She’s won the backing of 15 Democratic/Progressive Senators, including Senate Majority Leader (and President Pro Tem-in-waiting) Becca Balint.
Which is great. But it means she didn’t get endorsed by eight members of the majority caucus. Not so good.
The abstainers include fully half of Chittenden County’s delegation: unsuccessful Lite-Gov candidates slash grudge-nurturers Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram plus Michael Sirotkin. The rest include some of the most senior and most centrist of Senators: Bobby Starr, John Rodgers, Alice Nitka and Jeanette White.
The final absentee is the most surprising: Prog/Dem Anthony Pollina. I’ve tried to reach him, and will update this post if/when he returns my call.
The roster of Senate abstainers is not a good look. But it has more to do with the foibles of Vermont’s Worst Deliberative Body than it has to do with the merits or demerits of Young Ms. Gray.
So I hear that some Vermont Democrats are upset with me for… um… telling the truth?
The party’s executive committee met this week, and from what I hear, there was some grumbling about my recent posts concerning the Brandon Batham embezzlement case and the management issues revealed thereby.
If true, my response: Quit whining and get your house in order.
Or, if you’re going to complain, summon up your courage and tell me how I’m wrong. Because until proven otherwise, I stand by what I’ve written.
According to a new report from the nonprofit Coalition for Integrity, Vermont is one of the worst states in the nation for ethics enforcement in government.
The C4I’s report (first reported in Vermont by VTDigger) compares the ethics processes of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Vermont is in a three-way tie for next-to-last, along with Utah and Virginia. All three states have an entirely toothless ethics process. (Five states — Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming — have no ethics agency at all.)
The report’s Vermont section is a depressing read. It notes that our Ethics Commission is purely an advisory body with “no authority to investigate or enforce the ethics laws.” All it can do is review ethics complaints and refer them on to agencies with actual power. And all of its activity is shielded from public scrutiny.
This is no surprise to anyone who’s been following my coverage of the Commission’s establishment on this blog and in the pages of Seven Days. (If you do a site search for “ethics,” you’ll find the relevant stories.) Indeed, an entirely toothless ethics process is exactly what the legislature intended. After staunchly resisting the very idea that Vermont needed ethical standards, lawmakers did just barely enough to make it seem like they cared. But they don’t.
And the Democratic majority bears the responsibility for this sad state of affairs, because Democrats have the power. They used it to stonewall every idea for real ethics enforcement. They show every sign of continuing to hold that position. In fact, lawmakers essentially bullied the Ethics Commission into rewriting its own rules on advisory opinions to end any possibility that any of the panel’s work would ever be available for public inspection.
A secret ethics process. Isn’t it ironic, don’tcha think?