Former House Speaker leads forum on state government

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BENNINGTON — When Shap Smith was about to become Speaker of the Vermont House in 2009, he knew an important decision loomed on whether to pursue legislation insuring full marriage equality for same-sex couples.

"My team had scars from the way Civil Unions turned out," Smith said during a forum on state government at Bennington College, but he decided to move forward anyway on what was then an extremely controversial issue.

Democrats had gone in 2000 from the longtime majority party in the House to minority status after the election that year, largely because of voter reaction to the landmark Civil Unions bill.

"Either I was na ve, or stupid, or principled; I'm not sure which way that would go," Smith said of his decision to push for full marriage equality.

As the House leader, he helped lead the drive to approve the legislation and then override a veto from Gov. Jim Douglas by a single vote in April 2009.

Smith, who with Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, led the forum Thursday at the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action, used that example and others to explore both the limits and the possibilities for government at the state level.

In introducing Smith, Campion told the audience of students, a couple of his former colleagues in the House and area residents that the Morrisville Democrat "didn't have to take up this issue," but nevertheless pursued marriage equality, as well as universal health care and other progressive legislation during his four terms as Speaker.

"He may be remembered for a lot of things," Campion said, "but without a doubt marriage equality will be at the top of that list."

Smith said he was lobbied by advocates for equality as soon as he became a serious candidate for the leadership post. These were people like Beth Robinson, now a Vermont Supreme Court justice, he said, Speaker Gaye Symington, who was then leaving the House, and others.

"There were a number of people who went out and organized and said, 'we are going to fight back against this backlash for Civil Unions,'" Smith said.

The tidal wave "Take Back Vermont" reaction to that bill resulted in dramatic change in the make-up of the Legislature, especially in the House, where Republicans gained control for the first time in 14 years.

"I think we were down to about 55 Democrats," Smith said of the 150-member House.

Even by 2008, with the Democrats back firmly in control in the Legislature, "advocates [for equality] were clearly on their heels," Smith said.

California had just passed an anti-marriage equality referendum, he said. And while Massachusetts had passed same-sex marriage legislation, that only happened through a mandate from state courts after a ruling in favor of challenges to the existing marriage laws as discriminatory.

No state had yet approved equality through legislation, before Vermont did it in 2009, helping to create state-by-state momentum that led to a decisive U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015.

"It is hard to believe that was just 10 years ago," Smith said. "It is hard to imagine what it was like on marriage equality."

On winning that legislative battle, Smith cited the efforts of Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and then-Sen. Peter Shumlin, along with Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal/Woodford, and former Rep. Ann Manwaring, of Wilmington, both of whom attended the forum.

After the Senate "got the ball rolling" on the bill, Smith said, the House passed marriage equality as well, and then it all came down to the House vote to override the governor's veto.

"We needed 100 votes, and we had 96," he said. "We spent seven days lobbying begging, cajoling, twisting arms, and praying that we could get the votes ... And then the folks that were actually the most uncertain were at the end of the alphabet, and it was a roll call vote."

Soon after the Vermont bill was enacted, New Hampshire and Maine passed similar measures, Smith said, and a few years later the Supreme Court "ruled that marriage equality was the law of the land."

Small state impact

Even a small state like Vermont can move the entire nation through example, Smith said, describing the national impacts of the state's GMO food product labeling legislation and attempts to expand affordable health care.

He noted that after Massachusetts under former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney passed health care legislation that included an individual mandate in 2006, that formula was copied in many respects in the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Asked about the "federal restraints" states have to overcome in forging a new path on health care or environmental protection or in other areas, Smith said those hurdles include the lack of control states have over federal funding sources and the waivers required to experiment with alternative structures.

Vermont's failed attempt to establish a universal health care system foundered in part over the state's "lack of control over the [national insurance] market," he said, and because for federal waivers from insurance-related requirements.

"It became so complicated, it was very easy for people to put sand in the gears," he said.

A state like Vermont can essentially become "handcuffed" by federal waiver or funding requirements in dealing with environmental cleanup efforts or Medicaid expansion.

But Smith said it's encouraging that a large state like California doesn't rely as much on federal funding because of the size of its economy, and it can enact reforms and "show the way" for other states.

He said California can, for instance, set a standard for auto emissions higher than the federal standard and expect the industry to begin meeting that standard to have access to the state's huge market.

Smith added that he's worried the Trump administration might try to block California's ability to go above federal standards in those instances.

State's rights

Smith was asked about the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, dealing with the authority of states versus the federal government, and the irony of progressives who once decried the "state's rights" battle cry of Southern segregationists during the civil rights era now pushing the same argument to thwart a conservative national government.

"I think it is used on both sides of the aisle," he said of the tactic.

Issues on which Vermont seems poised to push the envelope, Smith said, are family leave, which passed this year before being vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, and on a significant hike in the minimum wage.

CAPA Director Susan Sgorbati asked Smith about the political climate for further gun control legislation beyond the controversial bill that passed earlier this year and generated a new "take back" movement among gun rights advocates.

"My sense is probably not," he said, unless there is renewed momentum for such changes.

On the carbon tax initiative for gasoline and other fossil fuels to promote efficiency and use of renewable energy, Smith said that, although he believes it is a good idea, he thinks Vermont might not be a good place to impose such a tax. There are too many Vermonters who must commute or otherwise travel many miles each week in their vehicles, he said.

There already is something like a carbon tax in effect, he added, referring to the state gas tax, which can be adjusted.

Responding to a question from Botzow on pension issues, Smith said the decline of employer-funded pensions is leading to a crisis as millions retire — often in debt — with only Social Security income and Medicare.

He said "401ks are great but only if you can afford to put money into them, and if you can manage them," adding, "The system is nuts."

The situation also is driving a wedge between public employees with good pensions and Americans who lack those benefits and fully realize that their taxes are supporting public pension systems.

One idea, he said, which a state could consider pushing, "is that we should all have that," meaning allowing others to buy into a public pension system.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.

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