Tag Archives: Legislative Council

It’s good to have a staff of tame lawyers on call

The Legislature continues to careen toward adjournment, the desire to skip town augmented by the looming specter of Norm McAllister, who officially refused to resign today.

One event worth noting from today’s action: the Senate Natural Resources Committee held a closed-door meeting in the office of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell. Reporters were refused admittance. Later, the Legislative Council duly produced a memo validating the unusual move:

It is the opinion of the Office of Legislative Council that the General Assembly is not subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law.

If true, this is quite shameful, and ought to be rectified by… ahem… the General Assembly ASAP. But I have a feeling it’s a convenient fiction. For one thing, if Legislative committees could go into closed-door session whenever they wanted to, they’d do it all the damn time.

For another, this is a substantially broader claim than was made last year, when Seven Days’ Paul Heintz was denied access to a meeting of the Committee on Committees.

Continue reading

A new day in an old way

Vermont lawmakers, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to make a change in the hidebound office of Sergeant-at-Arms. Formerly a sinecure for beloved dodderers, the post is now apparently being filled on merit. Who knew?

In a rather shockingly one-sided vote, Francis Brooks — who was SaA for eight years after serving for 25 as a state representative — was dumped in favor of Janet Miller, deputy director of the Legislative Council. The final tally was 128 Miller, 47 Brooks.

I take it as a sign of a new attitude toward the management of the Statehouse. Gone are the days when an 87-year-old Statehouse fixture (Dwight Dwinell) could hang onto the job as long as he could get up the steps of the building. Now, wewant an actual manager.

Is this a harbinger of tighter security at the people’s house? Perhaps. There’s talk of fire drills and active-shooter drills for lawmakers. (If they’re serious about evacuation procedures, they might want to cut another couple of doors in the House and Senate chambers. The House chamber is a huge room with three exits from the main floor, two of them tiny; the Senate is a smaller room with one main-floor exit plus a small side door that leads to a room right next to the main exit. Hope the desk nearest the door doesn’t catch fire.)

So, a new day, but carried out in old-Vermont fashion. There had been complaints about Brooks, some quantifiable, some passive-aggressively vague, and many of them anonymous: he didn’t run a tight enough ship, security wasn’t up to snuff, he didn’t recruit enough legislative pages from other parts of the state, there was “a general level of discontent,” he was too “grumpy.”

Of course — and this is the “Vermont fashion” part of it — nobody told Brooks about any of this. On the eve of today’s vote, Brooks told VTDigger that “no one came to me… No individuals or group have come up and said it to me that, ‘You were wrong,’ or ‘You should have handled it this way.'”

As a flatlander who’s lived in Vermont for less than a decade, I can tell you this happens A LOT in Vermont. Direct confrontation is avoided; grievances are allowed to accumulate until the situation reaches the breaking point.

To Vermonters, this probably seems like a positive: what’s wrong with politeness?

Well, when it’s used to paper over issues instead of dealing with them, it’s counterproductive. By all accounts, Brooks didn’t see this coming until it was too late. And that’s a shame. My sense is that he operated under the old-timey conception of the job: a low-impact sinecure for a man (cough) of a certain age.

Not any more. And the fact that Brooks got a standing ovation after his unceremonious ouster is a very Vermont thing to do: it was a nice tribute to a senior figure, but coming right after the lopsided vote against him, there was something curiously hollow about the gesture. Yeah, let’s have a nice round of applause for the guy we just kicked in the teeth.

A moment of sanity in the corner office

Apparently the Governor realized it wasn’t a good idea to begin a new biennium with an inter-branch standoff over budget cuts.

The Shumlin administration has decided not to unilaterally cut $6.7 million from the current fiscal year’s budget. The rescissions instead will be included in the executive branch’s budget adjustment proposal to the Legislature in January.

Can we hear a brief rendition of Fanfare For A Single Kazoo?

[Administration Secretary Jeb] Spaulding said the administration agreed to wait on rescissions, but will “slow down” spending in the meantime.

“(G)etting into a fight with the Legislature on this would be counterproductive,” he said in an email.

In the words of some great philosopher somewhere, “Well, DUHHHHH.”

The Administration, for those just joining us, had claimed the authority to cut current-year spending by up to one percent without legislative approval. And, as reported in this space (and, regrettably, nowhere else), the outlined cuts were very heavy on Human Services. Which probably would have caused even more conflict with the Legislature, as it has done on previous occasions when the Administration sought to balance the budget on the backs of the working poor.

Lawmakers weren’t convinced by the Administration’s legal rationale for unilateral action, even though Attorney General Bill Sorrell rubber-stamped it. Legislative Council had a different view:

In a draft memo drafted Nov. 24, Legislative Council attorney Rebecca Wasserman said the rescissions already approved by the Joint Fiscal Committee in August preclude the administration from making unilateral cuts now.

I hate to say it, but I’ll take Wasserman’s word over Sorrell’s. Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon somehow managed to make a big concession sound like a veiled threat:

“We do believe we have the authority based on the consultation with the AG’s office,” Reardon said. “But for the sake of working with the Legislature, we decided we will propose all of the budget adjustments in January.”

“For the sake of working with the Legislature,” meaning, “We let ’em have this one, so they’d better play ball come January.”

Perhaps I read too much into this. And perhaps, in a more cooperative atmosphere, the massive Human Services cuts will be mitigated. We can but hope.