For an idea of just how busy the Vermont General Assembly is during crossover, here’s an in-depth look at the Senate Education Committee, chaired by state Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington.
Tuesday, the committee continues its discussion of H. 81, which proposes a change in state bargaining law to allow licensed and unlicensed K-12 education employees to negotiate separately in health care negotiations.
H. 81 drew some fire as it passed the House of Representatives last month, following a largely party line vote not to send it to the Education Committee for review.
Proponents say the bill allows for fairness in negotiations, especially for lower-paid employees for whom health care premiums take a significant bite of their paycheck.
Some lawmakers who voted for a referral, notably Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, said they wanted to know what the bill might likely cost school districts, and how it would impact districts already strained by inequity in the funding formula. And Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Bennington-Rutland, said the bill “should ensure that the costs of any proposed outcome for both sides must be considered-particularly if an arbitrator is making the decision.”
Which brings us back to the Senate Education Committee, where that latter point was emphasized in testimony offered by Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union board chair Jim Salsgiver of Dorset, and by Taconic and Green Regional School District board chair Herb Ogden of Mount Tabor.
Wednesday at 9 a.m., the committee hosts a joint session with the Judiciary and Health and Welfare committees to review the state’s response to allegations that Kurn Hattin School in Westminster failed to promptly report incidents of sexualized behavior. The school, which voluntarily surrendered its therapeutic license last fall in consultation with the Department of Children and Families — a license DCF was prepared to rescind — is under investigation by the Vermont Agency of Education, with a report expected soon. The witness list includes Education Secretary Daniel French and DCF Commissioner Sean Brown.
Thursday, Vermont State Colleges System Chancellor Sophie Zdatny has been invited to update the panel. Last month, the system’s board of trustees approved a reinvention plan to help the system get out of financial difficulty and better align itself with the needs of Vermont learners and businesses. But that plan will require significant sustained investment from the Legislature.
And that’s just one committee.
• Legislative committees don’t usually meet on Mondays. But the crossover deadline makes its own rules, and that brings us to the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, which will be discussing a committee draft proposing significant changes to the Department of Corrections. Monday’s discussion includes a serious topic: preventing “sexual exploitation of a person under the supervision of the Department of Corrections.”
The House Corrections and Institutions Committee has a prominent Southern Vermont presence. Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Windham 1, is the panel’s vice chairperson; Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington 2-2, is ranking member; and Reps. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Bennington-Rutland, and Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Windham 4, are members.
• Tuesday morning after party caucuses, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee will discuss the workforce support sections of H. 171, the child care bill. Child care facilities are small businesses as well as an important part of the state’s economic and educational infrastructure, so what this committee has to say about the bill matters.
• House Corrections and Institutions is scheduled to be back at work at 8 a.m. They plan to discuss the proposed sale of the former Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, and will hear from Green Mountain Club executive director Michael DeBonis on protection initiatives for the Long Trail.
• At 1:15 p.m. in House Judiciary, a slate of witnesses has been invited to testify on provisions of H. 183, a bill that would update the state’s sexual assault statute. The invited include mental health advocate Wanda White, Zachary Hozid of Disability Rights Vermont, and Assistant Attorney General David Scherr.
• In House Human Services, H. 265 proposes a new Office of the Child Advocate in state government —a position independent of state government that would “provide transparent and impartial oversight of Vermont’s justice-involved youth and child welfare systems.” Its co-sponsors include Progressive Caucus leader Selene Colburn and area Reps. Sara Coffey, Emilie Kornheiser and Kelly Pajala. The committee will continue working on the concept this week, with discussion continuing Tuesday and testimony expected Wednesday and Thursday.
• The General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee will resume discussion Wednesday of a joint resolution in which the Legislature would formally apologize for the harm caused by state-sponsored eugenics policies, including sterilizations.
• A busy week in the House Transportation Committee doesn’t end with finalizing the miscellaneous transportation bill. Thursday at 11 a.m., a discussion on equity and inclusion at the Agency of Transportation is set to include Director of Racial Equity Xusana Davis, Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Wanda Minoli, and several representatives from VTrans.
When members of the Vermont General Assembly talk about who they are and what they do, they often use the phrase “citizen legislature.”
In my experience covering state government, that’s not a phony throwaway line, but an honest expression of how lawmakers view their role in this state’s culture of participatory democracy.
I bring this up now because we’re still in the midst of “crossover,” the span of weeks in which committees hustle bills across the finish line — or make difficult choices about the possible and the practical — to meet an institutional deadline. That deadline is set so its members can finish their work under the Golden Dome and return to their full-time jobs and lives. But it's also like trying to stuff 50 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag.
A part-time citizen legislature is not just a 19th century throwback to an era when lawmakers needed to be home by May to plant crops. Unless members are retired, or wealthy, or have a job that allows for flexibility, they must juggle their oath to the State of Vermont with their work and family life. And no, meeting by Zoom does not make that any easier.
Yes, like Super Chicken, they knew the job was dangerous when they took it. But the limitations of every-day life and the state's geography also prevent some folks from even running for a House or Senate seat, let alone sticking around long enough to become skilled at the many disciplines that make a legislator effective.
Does that still make sense in 2021? Would we get a more deliberate process, and better laws and policies, if Vermont’s Legislature were more of a full-time job with full-time pay?
I don’t have an answer for that. But maybe you do. Send your thoughts to email@example.com and I’ll print the most interesting responses.
You can watch any House or Senate committee proceeding, either streaming live or archived whenever you like, by going to the committee's page and clicking on its current agenda. You can find listings of committees and their agendas here.
The House convenes at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 1:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 9:30 a.m. Friday.
The Senate convenes at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, 1 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 11:30 a.m. Friday.