Local House delegation split on legislative pay

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington

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This story was updated at 3 p.m. on June 26, 2020. 

MONTPELIER — Southern Vermont members of the state House of Representatives were split evenly on a provision approved Wednesday that would tie future Legislative pay raises to the pay earned by statewide elected officers, including the attorney general, auditor, governor, treasurer and secretary of state.

The earliest that legislators would see a raise is in fiscal 2022 under the amendment, which the House passed by an 82-61 vote. The state Senate concurred unanimously on Thursday.

Supporters of the proposal, a part of H. 961, said higher pay is needed so that the Legislature can become younger and more diverse for what is essentially a year-round job, despite its seasonal official hours. Currently, under an agreement reached in 2005, legislative pay raises are limited to cost of living adjustments provided in collective bargaining with the state employees labor union. That works out to about $14,000 per session, and supporters of the measure said that effectively limits the body to lawmakers who can afford to work for so little.

"Our current levels of legislative pay prevent so many Vermonters from serving here with us and prevent this body from fully reflecting the people of our state," said state Rep. Selene Coburn, P/D-Burlington. "If we truly want to make progress on issues of equity in the legislature, we can't treat our service like a volunteer job."

House Republicans roasted the move, asking why Democrats and Progressives chose a moment when Vermonters are struggling through the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic to set the stage for future raises.

."Instead of debating ways to give ourselves more money, we should be finding ways to get more relief to everyday Vermonters — those who are truly in need," said House Minority Leader Patti McCoy, R-Poultney. "This action is part of a pattern of behavior by the legislative majority — beginning with the rejection of the full economic relief package proposed by [Gov. Phil] Scott — that has demonstrated a lack of interest in helping the most vulnerable Vermonters."

In the state Senate, Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, questioned the timing and called the House's action "unfortunate," but said there were "too many other good things" in the bill for him to oppose it. "I did not vote no but want to report my objection," he said.

Local supporters of the amendment emphasized that they voted to align their pay with constitutional officers, rather than directly vote themselves a pay raise, and pointed out that the soonest the Legislature would see pay increase is 2022.

A number pointed to remarks made by former state Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham, when he announced to the House that he was leaving. "For us to truly be a citizen legislature, every Vermonter who wishes to serve should have the opportunity to run and represent their district without fear of financial ruin. As long as this is not the case, we will only have the myth of a citizen legislature," Trieber said in February.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilimington, agreed. "I have seen too many, mostly young legislators leave because they could not afford to stay," he said. State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, said the economic issues are relevant given the current focus on promoting racial and economic fairness in the state.

"For those who say that 'this isn't the right time' to even discuss legislative pay scales — I can't imagine a better time than now to talk about diversity in representation given the conversations around racial justice and class disparity happening throughout our nation," she said.

State Rep. Sara Coffey agreed there needs to be debate on "the issue of diversity and privilege and who gets to serve in the legislature based on 18 weeks of pay and a job with no health insurance."

"Many legislators who are under 65 patch together many jobs to make it work," said Coffey, D-Guilford. " We are losing some younger and more diverse voices and talent because of low legislative pay. If we want to see more racial, age and socio-economic diversity in the legislature we need to ensure that legislative pay does not fall behind so that everyone can have an opportunity to serve in the People's House and to give it their undivided focus."

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, concurred with his Windham County colleagues. "With no benefits and year round work for part time pay, the current structure prevents the Legislature from looking more like the rest of Vermont — with more more young adults, more people of color, more women and others who aren't well represented here," he said.

Some in opposition said they agree that it makes sense to raise legislative wages, but did not feel this was the right time, or the right way, to consider it.

"Even though the issue was about process and did not actually fund a raise for legislators, yesterday did not feel like the appropriate time to being having the critically important discussion about legislative pay," said state Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry.

"My problem was the process of it. In my opinion there wasn't a need to stick this in the first quarter budget. This is a budget for three months, and the Pay Act is coming up again," said Rep, Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington. "This could have easily been out in the open. I fundamentally support it, just not in this manner."

Kathleen James, D-Manchester, said after spending months helping people whose economic security has been undermined by the COVID-19 shutdown, "voting to support a future pay raise, or even debating it on the House floor, felt wrong to me. So I was comfortable voting no."

"That said, I do agree that at some point we have to continue the conversation," James said. "Between the low pay and the seasonal session schedule, it's hard for Vermonters to figure out a way to serve."

Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, said the question could have waited for January of next year. "Instead, while we are in extended session ostensibly to deal with a health emergency, and to organize the distribution of COVID-19 funds, we seem to be doling out money to ourselves. The optics are bad."

And Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said she could not support "even the future possibility' of higher pay given the lack of understanding of its financial implications.

"At a time when so many Vermonters are struggling, it makes no sense to create even the possibility of higher future legislative pay," she said.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, opposed the change in pay structure, but said she's sympathetic to the arguments for higher pay.

"Legislators make about $13,000 during for a six-month session and 12 months of constituent service. It is difficult to make ends meet if you are a working Vermonter and need to make more then $13,000 a year to live," she said.

Seven Democrats and two independents joined the region's lone Republican, Mary Morrissey of Bennington, in opposing the measure.

An opposing amendment offered by Browning would have declined to fund the contract and sought to renegotiate its terms, given the current financial crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. It was defeated, 16-129.

State Rep. David Durfee, D-Shaftsbury, said he opposed Browning's proposal because "negating the outcome of an agreement negotiated in good faith would set a bad precedent."

Greg Sukiennik is Vermont Statehouse Editor for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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