Tag Archives: Joe Benning

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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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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“Both Sides” Benning

The junior senator from Caledonia County has crafted a masterpiece of both-sidesism. Sen. Joe Benning’s essay, “With Work, We Can Heal This Divided America,” blames conservatives and liberals alike for our stark political differences.

Now, these are tough times to be a thoughtful Republican. Joe Benning is one of those. He’s a conservative but not an ideologue, and he brings a defense attorney’s perspective to his work on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But this essay…

Benning acknowledges the intolerance in his own party:

…my party must absolutely divorce itself from those promoting intolerance, conspiracy theories, bigotry and hate. The extremist mentality which led to the unfortunate events of Jan. 6 cannot go unchecked.

A bit understated, but fair. He then indicts the Democrats:

Coordinated extremists shouting down speakers they dislike, physically breaking up rally-goers gathered for a cause they disagree with and randomly destroying property are not petty concerns. They are harbingers of the very same “ends-justifies-the-means” intolerant mindset now infecting extremists on the right.

Plenty of truth there. Intolerance does exist on both sides. But it is far from evenly distributed. The vast majority of the intolerance, hate, and conspiracy thinking is on the right.

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Adventures in Bureaucracy, Capitol Security Division

“Bureaucracy” is usually a pejorative term meaning excessive complication and expense, especially in the public sector. That’s one side of it, for sure. On the other hand, the public’s business must inevitably involve some level of bureaucracy.

Take, for example, security in Montpelier’s Capitol Complex. The map above shows it almost exactly. The borders, more or less, are the Winooski River in the south, Bailey Avenue on the west, Terrace Street and somewhere behind the Statehouse on the north, and Governor Aiken Street/Taylor Street to the east. It’s a mix of state buildings, privately owned buildings, lawns and parking lots. The state properties include all three branches of government plus offices for statewide elected officials.

Security in the area involves numerous entities, including the Capitol Police, the Department of Buildings and General Services, the judiciary’s security team, the Montpelier Police Department, the Washington County Sheriff’s office, and the Vermont State Police.

That’s a lot of bureaucracies, and they need seamless coordination to provide effective security. This was the subject of a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Institutions Committee which, frankly, was bone-dry at times — but nonetheless crucial, if we’re to have the best security in and around the Capitol.

Which has become much more urgent in recent years, with frequent demonstrations in and around the Statehouse and the threat of potentially violent protests around President Biden’s election and inauguration.

Security protocols for the complex are laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding involving the Capitol Police, BGS and judicial branch security. The most recent version was crafted in 2016, and committee chair Joe Benning believes there’s a pressing need to “rebuild [the MOU] from scratch.” He wants to come up with a draft MOU by the end of this month.

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If I hear someone say “a few bad apples,” I’m gonna scream

The Vermont Department of Corrections (Not Exactly As Illustrated) (Or Maybe It Is)

As Vermont’s prison scandal continues to spread and deepen, I find myself pondering a simple question:

How are the Democrats going to handle this?

The latest in this head-spinning affair is the indefinite suspension of the top two officials at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. DOC Commissioner-For-Now Mike Touchette announced the suspensions in a Friday newsdump. He didn’t explain the reasons — but dollars to donuts it’s no coincidence that the action comes a few days after Human Services Secretary Mike Smith launched his own investigation, which initially (at least) focused on the state’s only women’s prison.

And while we wait for more dominoes to fall, let’s consider that the scandal puts the Democrats in a tight spot. At first glance, you might think they’d be rarin’ to dig up a nice juicy election-year scandal that might put a few dents in Gov. Phil Scott’s Teflon.

But maybe not.

Some factors to consider. Former DOC commissioner Lisa Menard served from 2015 to 2018. Yep, she was appointed by Democrat Peter Shumlin. She and Touchette are longtime veterans of the department, who rose through the ranks under Democratic and Republican governors. The documented problems at the women’s prison go back to at least 2012, which would be Shumlin’s first term. This scandal may have blown open on Scott’s watch, but it’s really a bipartisan issue.

The potential principals in this affair — Menard, Touchette, Smith, and his predecessor Al Gobeille — are all familiar faces around state government. They are past or present denizens of the Statehouse bubble. They are well known and — rightly or wrongly — respected by legislators. Rep. Alice Emmons, who’s served in the House since 1983, is the longtime chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, which will tackle the prison scandal. She and her committee have had responsibility for oversight of the system, and failed to keep the system on the straight and narrow. Is she going to dig deep into this thing, or will she be inclined to lay the blame at the feet of “a few bad apples”?

And again, if I hear that phrase in January, I’m going to scream. Because even at this early stage, there’s overwhelming evidence that this problem isn’t confined to the front-line workers. It’s clear that DOC management actively conspired to keep things quiet.

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Sooner or later the VTGOP will have to address Rutland

Got a lot of blowback on my recent post about the Syrian refugee debate in Rutland. More than one correspondent kindly pointed out that I had misidentified Mayor Chris Louras as a Republican.

They were right and I was wrong. He switched to independent several years ago.

But contrary to their claims, my argument still stands. The refugee proposal is likely to be the dominant issue in next March’s city elections, and if opponents put up candidates who would reject the plan, then the Vermont Republican Party and its hypothetical Governor Phil Scott would face a critical choice:

Do they support the refugee plan, or do they embrace the Trumpian fear tactics of the opponents?

That doesn’t change because Chris Louras is an independent, and I’ma tell you why.

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Planet Norm’s increasingly erratic orbit

Any time a reporter has a few minutes to spare and wants to buy the Vermont media equivalent of a lottery ticket, all they have to do is give once-and-maybe-future-Senator Norm McAllister a call. If he answers the phone, he’s almost certain to say something dumb or offensive or both.

This week’s winner was Terri Hallenbeck of Seven Days, who wrangled a juicy quote from Good Ol’ Norm, whose internal exile has, unsurprisingly, failed improve his perspective. In fact, he’s showing signs of outright conspiratorialism.

The context: Hallenbeck was previewing this week’s Senate vote on marijuana legalization. At the time, it was looking like a very close thing — maybe one vote either way. Which prompted Hallenbeck to observe that this was “the second of two recent legislative initiatives on which [McAllister] might have swayed the results.” (The other one was the paid sick leave bill.) That is, if he hadn’t been suspended in January because of those pesky sexual assault charges.

Take it away, Norm…

Reached at home in Highgate, McAllister said he would have voted against both measures. “I got an idea that’s probably why some people didn’t want me there.”

Yeah, solid thinking. It wasn’t the multiple felony charges or the pending trial or the embarrassment of having an accused felon in their midst. The Real Truth is that Norm McAllister was simply too dangerous and had to be silenced! 

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