Tag Archives: Phil Baruth

Storm Clouds Above the Statehouse

There is much to be said about Gov. Phil Scott suddenly pulling a voluntary paid family leave program. For instance, that he has never ever pushed this issue at all unless the Legislature is actively considering a universal program. This isn’t a principled position, it’s an artifice meant to draw votes away from the Dem/Prog caucuses.

But something else, something subtler but equally discomfiting, on my mind at the moment.

There are signs that the House-Senate tensions of past years are flaring back up again. If so, key legislation could fail because of differences between the two chambers, real or imaginary. If that happens, they’ll be disappointing the voters who elected record numbers of Dems expecting them to get stuff done.

This tension was minimized if not eliminated in the current biennium, thanks to the efforts of Krowinski and outgoing Pro Tem Becca Balint. It’d be a shame if Balint’s departure triggers a return of the bad old days.

The usual sniping between House and Senate is most often expressed in senators’ apparently innate sense of superiority. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen senators speak of state representatives as if they’re misbehaving kids on a school bus, and treat House legislation as if it’s toilet paper stuck to their shoes.

The most prominent example of the House-Senate tension has been the twin battles over paid family leave and raising the minimum wage. The House has preferred the former, the Senate the latter. The result: No paid leave program and woefully inadequate movement on minimum wage. On two occasions the Legislature has passed watered-down versions of a paid leave program and Scott has vetoed them. The inter-chamber differences have done much to frustrate progress toward enacting a strong paid leave program over Scott’s objections.

And now, here we are again with an apparent House-Senate rift on paid family leave.

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The State Senate Approaches a Demographic Tipping Point

Seems like I’ve been waiting forever for the Vermont Senate to undergo a demographic shift. Every two years there’s been talk of a retirement wave, but it never materializes. Senators consider stepping aside, then realize they’re indispensable. (They’re not.) And the voters rarely eject an incumbent except in cases of overt criminality (Norm McAllister) or advanced senescence (Bill Doyle).

The shift has been painfully incremental until this year, when almost one-third of all senators decided to bow out. The nine incomers are younger, five of them are women, and one is a person of color: Nader Hashim joins Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Randy Brock as the three non-white members of the upper chamber.

(The tiny Republican caucus managed to get older and no less male. Its two youngest members, Corey Parent and Joshua Terenzini, will be replaced by a couple of old white men.)

Got more numbers to plow through, but here’s the bottom line. The Senate is on the verge of a historic shift, but it’s happening in slow motion. We might reach the tipping point in two years’ time. We’re not quite there yet.

There are still plenty of tenured members in positions of power. They account for most of the committee chairs. But only — “only” — eight of the 30 senators will be 70 or older. At least 13 will be under 65, which doesn’t sound like a lot but in the Senate it definitely is.

The incoming Senate President Pro Tem, Phil Baruth, straddles the age divide. He’s only — “only” — 60. But he’s entering his sixth two-year term, so he’s familiar with the Senate and the elders are comfortable enough with him to make him their leader. As a senator he’s been a strong policy advocate unafraid to ruffle feathers, but as Pro Tem he’ll know he can’t push his caucus too far too fast.

There are the preliminiaries. Now let’s dive in.

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Chittenden Senate: Brother, Can I Spare a Dime?

One thing stands out when you look over the campaign finance filings for the three state Senate districts in Chittenden County: There are lots of candidates, and most of ’em aren’t raising much money anywhere outside of their own pockets. Seems like a potential equity issue; if you can afford a couple thousand bucks or more, or a LOT more, you don’t have to worry so much about fundraising from other people.

Maybe this is a byproduct of splitting up the formerly unified Chittenden district: No longer can candidates raise money from anywhere in the county. Now they have smaller fields to harvest. Likely a bigger factor: There are a lot of contested statewide races consuming a lot of Democratic money, perhaps away from legislative races.)

The king of the self-funders is Erhard Mahnke, affordable housing advocate and longtime Bernie Sanders associate. He dumped a cool $10,000 into his own campaign, and has only raised $666 from anyone else. That gives him a financial lead in the Chittenden Central district, because he hasn’t spent much so far.

Other notable self-funders include Brian Shelden and Irene Wrenner, Democratic candidates in Chittenden North. They’ve given nearly $7,500 to their own campaigns and raised less than that from other people. Meanwhile, the sole Republican, state Rep. Leland Morgan, has barely tried. He’s raised less than $700. Perhaps he’s looked at district demographics and decided he doesn’t really need to try. Or he’s waiting until after the primary.

Back in Chittenden Central, the top three fundraisers have done well from their own pockets and from others, too.

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Not Quite So Many Scofflaws in High Places As It Seemed

As expected, I’ve gotten some blowback from my post naming all the state lawmakers who didn’t file campaign finance reports by the March 15 deadline, and still hadn’t as of a couple weeks later.

I’ve heard from five lawmakers in all. One, Sen. Brian Campion, said I’d mistakenly put him on the list, and he was right. Four others (Sen. Phil Baruth, Reps. Seth Chase, Martin LaLonde and Emily Long) said they’d been advised by the Secretary of State’s office that they didn’t need to file.

And yes, they were right.

Here’s the deal. If you ended the 2020 campaign cycle with nothing in the bank and reported that fact at the time, and you have yet to raise or spend $500 or more in this cycle, you don’t have to report until you reach that threshold.

That was, indeed, the case for the four lawmakers named above. It may be true for others as well (and I’ll add their names to the list if they let me know). But I believe their number is fairly small.

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Après Balint, La Sécheresse

The Vermont Senate’s seniority-heavy lineup is about to become a serious problem. That’s because current Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, seen above possibly contemplating the task of herding the caucus cats, is leaving the Senate to pursue a bid for Congress. And win or lose, she won’t be in the Senate beyond this term.

Which means the Senate will have to replace her no later than next January. And I’m here to tell you exactly how shallow the talent pool is. And that’s because so many senators have overstayed their sell-by dates.

Out of the 30 senators, a full 16 are basically too old to step into the top spot*. They’re not necessarily too old to be effective lawmakers, but they’re clearly on the downslope and I doubt that any of them would even want the job.

*For the record: Brock, Clarkson, Collamore, Cummings, Kitchel, Lyons, MacDonald, Mazza, McCormack, Nitka, Pollina, Sears, Sirotkin, Starr, White.

Before I get accused of ageism, let me expand on that cold assessment. Most of the senior senators are comfortable in their roles. They are not looking to take on a new level of responsibility. Heading the Senate caucus is a big, troublesome job. You’re always putting out fires or facing the press or twisting a fellow senator’s arm. It’s also something you tend to take on when you’re set on climbing the political ladder, not when you’re fat and happy.

Look at the last several Pro Tems. John Campbell was 47 years old when he assumed the office. Peter Shumlin and Peter Welch were in their primes, and clearly had their eyes on higher positions. There were a couple of short-time Republicans in the mid-90s; John H. Bloomer served from 1993-95; Stephen Webster succeeded him for a single term. Bloomer was 63 when he became Pro Tem; he had had a successful political career and would certainly had continued if he hadn’t been killed in a car crash in January 1995. Webster was 52 when he succeeded Bloomer; he would continue his political career well beyond his time as Pro Tem.

Before them, and four years of Peter Welch, there was Doug Racine, a relative youngster when he became Pro Tem. Tim Ashe was in his early 40s, and Balint was 53. All these folks, save Webster, were far younger than today’s cohort when they led the chamber. It’s no job for old men. It is a job for the ambitious. Of the past seven Pro Tems who survived their tenures, only two (Webster, Campbell) did not seek higher office. And Campbell got the job largely because of his lack of ambition; senior Senators had a very free hand under his, cough, “leadership.”

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I Know Vermont Is the Land of Summer Camp, But All This “Kumbaya” Is Getting Ridiculous

This obligatory session-ender by VTDigger’s Xander Landen was so sticky-sweet that it should have had a warning label for diabetics. Everybody’s just getting along so well. Kind words all around, regardless of party.

Gov. Phil Scott, who has so far issued only one veto — an historic low for him — praised House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint: “It’s been a good dialogue, good discussion, very open, and they adhere to their word and everything’s been working fine.”

Balint said that she and Krowinski made progress on “establishing healthier patterns” in working with Scott, and she’s feeling “optimistic” about carrying the Kumbaya over to a 2022 session that will involve some touchy issues. Sen. Phil Baruth noted “historic” levels of tripartisan cooperation.

(There’s also a love-in involving Scott, Sen. Patrick Leahy and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. At his Tuesday presser, Scott all but endorsed Leahy for re-election in 2022, and Welch recently credited Scott with doing an “absolutely tremendous job” on Covid-19.)

Scott, Balint and Krowinski are right to feel satisfied. They avoided the intra- and inter-party battles of the past, and dealt with a number of issues successfully. And they had to do it remotely, which was tough on everyone.

But they also ducked some tough issues. Balint and Krowinski made a conscious effort to avoid sending Scott bills he was likely to veto. That might be a good short-term strategy for the pandemic session, but it’s the kind of thing that has made the Democratic majorities seem toothless throughout Scott’s governorship.

So, a good collegial session in 2021 probably won’t carry over to next year unless legislative leadership is willing to set aside a whole bunch of issues. And for strictly political reasons, that will be harder to do in an election year than in this extraordinary 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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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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Meet the New Senate, Distressingly Similar to the Old Senate

One of the younger members of the Vermont Senate (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

Well, it looked like the Vermont Senate (a.k.a. The State’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body) was in for something of a makeover. New leadership! All female! Two new members on the three-person Committee on Committees! An Actual PERSON OF COLOR!!!

But an irresistible undertow drags the Senate, like boats against the current, back ceaselessly into the past. (Finally, that liberal arts degree is paying off.)

Because the 2021-22 version of the Senate looks a lot like the 2019-20 edition. Lots of old folks in positions of authority, and the weight of tradition hanging like an iron albatross around its neck. Except that in some ways, it might be even worse.

It’s not the most promising of debuts for new President Pro Tem Becca Balint. But in her defense, this is far from your typical legislative year. The pandemic has forced the Legislature to meet remotely, which puts a damper on everything — and emphasizes the value of experience in committee leadership.

(Reminder: Each Senator serves on two committees.)

Still. Out of 14 standing committees, there’s a new chair on precisely one. And that one, former Education Committee chair Phil Baruth, (1) voluntarily vacated the post and (2) was, hard to believe, the youngest committee chair in the Senate. He turns 59 next month.

Last time I checked, the average Senate committee chair was 72 years old. Baruth’s successor Brian Campion brings down the average just a bit — although everybody else is another year older. It’s probably a wash.

There are some new, and younger, vice chairs. That would seem to indicate that some of our most senior Senators may be moving toward the exit in 2022. Relatively junior Senators Ruth Hardy, Andrew Perchlik and Cheryl Hooker are now vice chair of Health and Welfare, Transportation and Education respectively. And Baruth, vice chair of Judiciary, remains on the younger side of the demographic.

But that’s where the youth movement ends in committee leadership. Other vice chairs include longtime Social Security recipients Alice Nitka (Appropriations), Mark MacDonald (Finance),, Anthony Pollina (Government Operations), Dick McCormack (Institutions) and Dick Mazza (Rules).

This is, I write with a heavy sigh, business as usual. On top of all that, there are a few puzzling things about the new committee lineup.

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