With the Legislature adjourned until a likely veto override session next month and Gov. Phil Scott reviewing the stack of bills on his desk — and awaiting the magic 80 percent vaccination threshold that will trigger the end of COVID restrictions — there’s a bit of a lull for Look Ahead, Vermont.
Not to worry, things will pick up soon. There’s crucial work to be done this summer, and some unfolding political drama about who might or might not run for which office in 2022, starting with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy and whether he pursues another six-year term in office next year.
In the meantime, it seemed like a good time to tell you what I’ve learned in this first full year of covering our state government. (Ask me again in 10 years or 10 weeks, and you might get different answers.)
First and foremost, your lawmakers work hard.
Packing a full year of legislating into less than six short months is a mighty challenge in any year. Doing so at the height of a pandemic, when there are so many needs to be met, and somehow making it happen in a virtual environment where one-on-one conversations are impossible, only heightened the degree of difficulty.
Here’s what else had to be done between January and June:
A state budget needed to be passed. Millions of dollars in federal aid to meet the needs of housing, schools, mental health and infrastructure needed to be allocated. A $5.6 billion unfunded pension liability that will swallow more than $300 million of general fund revenue in fiscal 2022 alone had to be addressed. And the continued inequity in the per-pupil weighting factors in the state’s education funding formula needed to be addressed.
Lawmakers had committed to extending universal high-speed broadband and making child care more affordable, and passed bills laying the groundwork for both initiatives. They were told they needed to make key fixes in the cannabis tax and regulate law passed last year, to better address social equity and historic systemic racism, and they did so.
Yes, your lawmakers do indeed work hard. I know, because I tried to keep up with them on these topics and many more. There’s 180 of them and one of me, so I did not always succeed. It was a challenge every day.
It would have been easy for the Legislature to completely avoid debates on unfunded pension liability or per-pupil weighting factors. The pandemic and the lack of in-person discussion would have been legitimate excuses for putting off both issues.
But as much as critics questioned whether assigning those issues to task forces was another example of kicking the can, the Legislature did indeed raise and debate these issues. But the real show of political fortitude will come next year, when decisions must be made in an election year.
Second, you can learn a lot about your state and the issues it faces by following state government.
One might think that a 50-something reporter who’s been in the news business for more than 25 years would feel a bit “been there, done that” about taking on a new assignment.
But the policy and operations of a $7.3 billion enterprise are full of constant surprises, and I have learned so much in the past 12 months about so many topics affecting Vermont and its future. I’ve tried to pass along as much of that learning as I can. And it’s a worthy use of your time to learn more.
It starts with the very basic stuff that school children are taught (or should be taught): The branches of government and how they work and interact with each other, the system of checks and balances, how the legislative committee process works, and how the rules of Legislature are intended to maintain decorum and respect amid honest disagreement. If nothing else, the events of 2021 in Washington taught us that this system is precious, more fragile than we thought, and worth protecting at all costs.
But it hardly stops there. And here’s a challenge for you, dear reader: Next year, when the Legislature starts up again, decide to follow a committee or an issue that catches your interest and keep tabs on it.
Follow the trail of documents from legislative counsel, the Joint Fiscal Office and the administration. Read the written testimony submitted by witnesses and lobbyists. Watch the hearings and floor sessions online. Listen with both ears to the questions that members ask — and the questions that don’t get asked. And reach out, respectfully, to your Representative or Senator, because your voice matters to them.
I promise, you will learn so much.
There’s not room for me in your hometown paper to include every single detail of a committee hearing or the debate on a given topic. Indeed, it’s my hope that my reporting leads you to ask more questions and investigate the issues on your own.
And I do encourage you to reach out when there are questions you want answered, or when you spot important details the media might have missed.
That knowledge might not make you more fun at parties, but you’ll be a more educated voter. In a state that is justifiably proud of its nearly 250 years of participatory democracy, knowing the issues helps you make choices at the polls, and ask your representatives the right questions when you bump into them at the supermarket.
Last, it’s been my experience that the people who make state government run really do care about serving fellow Vermonters.
The lawmakers who represent Bennington and Windham County have been, to a person, helpful and generous with their time and knowledge. They’re exceptionally busy people, and they have jobs and families to look after as well as their responsibilities to the residents of their districts. I cannot thank them enough for their helpfulness.
The administration has also been very responsive, taking time to answer questions and make sure I understood the issues and the law. That extends from official spokespeople all the way up to the commissioners and secretaries themselves. Not every state offers the sort of access Vermont does, and it should not be taken for granted.
Last and definitely not least: The unsung heroes who support your state government — the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, the Office of Legislative Counsel, and the committee staff who make sure documents, video links and agendas are posted online — are the unseen engine of Vermont’s democracy. Their service makes it possible for lawmakers and the media to do their jobs and serve you.