For Democrats, an underwhelming legislative session
Earlier this session, Sara Coffey, a new Democratic representative from the Windham-1 district (Guilford and Vernon), shared on Facebook this photo of legislation in progress.

For Democrats, an underwhelming legislative session

John Walters, a Statehouse reporter and political columnist in Montpelier, says that for Democrats, the 2019 session has been ‘much more difficult and much less rewarding than it should have been, compared to expectations’

BRATTLEBORO — With the Vermont Legislature days away from adjournment for the year, John Walters, a reporter for Seven Days and the alternative weekly newspaper's political columnist, joined me on May 16 to discuss the big bills awaiting approval by the Legislature this week, their last week of the session.

We also discussed how the GOP's national reputation appears to have changed the Democratic Party in Vermont.

Walters is a longtime journalist and spent many years as a news anchor and host for public radio stations in Michigan and New Hampshire. He has written the weekly Fair Game column since 2017.

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O.P.: The legislative session is starting to tick down to the end. What do you think is going to happen, John?

J.W.: They thought they could finish with a long session on Saturday. They decided on Thursday that they would not be able to do that. So they are going to come back, probably either Tuesday or Wednesday, with the absolute aim of getting it all done before the Memorial Day weekend.

The pressure is still on to get stuff done in the very near future. So we're expecting a short session next week because I'm sure a lot of lawmakers have Memorial Day weekend plans.

O.P.: Yes.Vermont has a citizen legislature, and its legislature is only in session for a certain amount of time. Sometimes I wonder if that helps - if it pushes legislation through quicker, or if we end up delaying things more often.

For example, it looks like the bill to tax and regulate marijuana is one of the big ones that won't be making it to the end of the session this year.

J.W.: House leadership is saying that if they had another couple of weeks they could have made it through. But they don't want to take a couple more weeks for just one issue - it can come back next year.

This is the first year of a biennium, so anything that is not settled this year remains in the hopper and there will be no penalty for not getting across the finish line. The only things that they really have to pass are the money bills.

If they were really close on the budget, then maybe they would have adjourned the session. But they're still working out some financial issues.

O.P.: So what are some of the big-ticket items that are still hanging out there?

J.W.: Well, the budget is unsettled, although the differences between the Legislature and Governor Phil Scott seem to not be very large. In a press conference, the governor did some complaining about the amount of spending in the legislative budget.

But I don't think his heart was really in it. He talked about the Legislature spending too much, but he really didn't say, “Oh, this is outrageous. This is terrible. I have to stop this.”

It was more like, “Well, they're spending more than I would like to.”

It seems unlikely that he will veto the budget. And it seems unlikely that he will unleash a string of vetoes as he did last year when he vetoed 13 bills, including the budget twice.

O.P.: Right.

J.W.: He has presented a much more calm and approachable manner during this session, and he seems to be continuing in that vein. But it still remains to be seen. The budget could be vetoed.

There are proposals moving through the House and Senate that haven't reached the finish line, like minimum wage and paid family leave.

We also have the long-awaited plan to fund the long-term waterways cleanup, which the state is under federal order to accomplish. The governor proposed devoting the estate tax to this, and the Legislature doesn't like that idea. They are still trying to come up with their own alternative.

The House and Senate have each pursued different paths on this, and it remains to be seen what they can work out together.

The House has proposed a tax on cloud-based software, the argument being that this is a form of commerce that really didn't exist when they set the parameters for our sales tax and that it adjusts the sales tax to meet a new reality where most software is cloud based.

The Senate looks like it's going to settle on a 1-cent increase in the rooms and meals tax. The argument for that is that you don't have tourism if your water is screwed up.

O.P.: Point.

J.W.: Now if there's not an uproar from the hospitality industry, the Senate will probably pass that - and then it remains to be seen whether the House will go along, because the Senate clearly will not go along with the cloud tax. So I think they're going to settle on rooms and meals, but they're not quite to that point yet.

O.P.: I thought State Treasurer Beth Pearce had put forward a proposal as well. Am I correct about that. And what happened to it?

J.W.: Yeah. [Laughter.] Oh, dear.

The Legislature commissions studies a lot. In 2015, they couldn't figure out how to pay for this long-term waterway cleanup program that we were under federal orders to conduct. So they asked State Treasurer Beth Pearce to study the possible revenue sources and report back.

She did an exhaustive, thorough study of every possible iteration of a tax or revenue source to pay for this waterways cleanup, and - nobody listened. Her proposal basically was for a per-parcel fee on property sales, and that got the realtors and the builders all worked into a knot. So it didn't go anywhere in the Legislature.

And ever since then, the Legislature has been trying to reinvent the wheel in spite of the fact that she exhaustively went through all these possibilities and said, “Well, you know none of them are great, but the best one by a long shot is the per-parcel fee.”

I have to suspect that she's probably right. But you know, that's not how politics works.

So you have probably a lot of rich landowners in Vermont and a lot of realtors and property developers, and they don't want the burden on their business even if it's a small price to pay, and even if their business contributes mightily to our lake problem.

O.P.: I think we need to reiterate that we have to clean up our waterways because even the federal government - which I think a lot of people would feel right now does not have the best record on the environment - is telling us that they are too dirty.

J.W.: This process started during the Obama administration. I don't know whether the Trump Environmental Protection Agency would have you know moved forward on this.

It actually goes back to 2008, when the Conservation Law Foundation filed suit against the EPA, arguing that it wasn't enforcing the Clean Water Act properly. That led to the EPA intervening quite a few years ago. So this has been hanging around over our heads for a number of years. A series of legislatures have just kept kicking the ball down the road until we got to a point where the EPA basically said, “Look, guys - shape up, or we're going to step in and run things ourselves.”

And so, the Legislature is now very reluctantly, very slowly taking action in the most minimal way possible, which makes me laugh whenever people talk about our commitment to the environment in Vermont. We have an ideological commitment, but it's not really strong. When push comes to shove, we're just as reluctant to take action that might cost money as anybody else.

O.P.: Exactly. And speaking of costing money, I believe the minimum-wage and paid-family-leave bills are still hanging out there.

J.W.: Yep. For several years now, these two bills have been a point of contention between the House and Senate. Both bodies are Democratic, but the House thinks paid family leave is the priority and the Senate thinks minimum wage is.

And this year they are replaying that old tussle.

The House passed family leave. The Senate passed minimum wage. And since then, each has been basically watering down the other's proposal to the point where it's unclear whether they will pass versions of these two bills that are woefully inadequate to any real progressive voter.

This was like shooting each other in the face, like letting both of them die because each body is mad at the other body or thinks the other body screwed up.

So that's one of the dramas to be played out in the next few days.

And then we still don't know whether Governor Scott would sign or veto either of the bills - even in a watered-down form. They might be too strong for his taste.

O.P.: Right. They may still raise taxes too much or cost too much for him.

J.W.: Or raise costs for businesses. For paid family leave, the governor wants a program where nobody has to pay in unless they want to - no tax.

And for minimum wage, he really doesn't like the idea of artificially raising wages. He can accept some increase in the minimum wage, but he doesn't like the idea of $15 per hour by 2024.

That bill has now been watered down significantly by the House, and it remains to be seen how the Senate will react to that. It doesn't seem like they will react well.

The House version would raise the minimum wage to $15 by sometime in the indefinite future - maybe as soon as 2026, maybe another couple of years. By that point the bill will be basically irrelevant. It wouldn't have done anything for people, and the activists on this issue say that the House version is basically an insult to working Vermonters. But even so, even that might not be acceptable to the governor.

One might argue that with big Democratic majorities, the two bodies should just get their acts together and pass really good versions of both bills and set them before the governor. Then, if the governor vetoes them, then the Democrats will have a very clear line to run on next year.

The Democrats say, “You know, this is what we want to do for you. And the governor is keeping us from doing it.” But they are inclined to try to find common ground with the governor, which is noble and all that, even whether or not it's politically the best tactic.

They are trying, but they are also in the process of watering down each other's bills to the point where the other body might just say no. So we shall see. I have to think that they'll find it in their hearts to make a deal of some sort, because it would be terribly embarrassing.

The Democrats fought on three issues last fall in the election: paid leave, minimum wage, and climate change. They've done precious little on climate change. And if they get nothing on paid leave or minimum wage, it's going to be a really embarrassing session for them and a disappointment to all the people who came out and voted for them last fall.

O.P.: I want to make sure no other big bills are hanging out there. Are there?

J.W.: I think those are the biggest, but a lot of other important bills are going through on schedule. The governor said at his May 16 press conference that the funding source for the waterway cleanup was his top priority - which means that that bill is the one he's most likely to veto.

Part of his argument is that the state is rolling in money right now. We have been getting more in revenue than expected, especially on income tax. And the governor is confident that that will continue, that it's the result of a robust economy.

Democratic lawmakers aren't so sure; they want to see the actual numbers come in before they commit to spending a lot of money that might turn out to be one-time money.

So that adds to the sort of budget-and-spending drama right here at the end.

O.P.: You sit at a lot of the governor's press conferences. Has he ever defined what he means by “a robust economy”? I happened to be interviewing a tax preparer recently. When I asked them about the trends they are seeing, they told me they're seeing people with multiple W-2s. So, in other words, people are cobbling together many jobs to make a living.

To me, that's not a robust economy.

J.W.: No, and the reason that there is so much of a push to raise the minimum wage is that a lot of jobs still don't pay very well. One of the great mysteries of our modern economy over the last 30 or 40 years is that wage growth has never kept up with economic growth.

And you're right: in this economy, our unemployment rate is vanishingly small and employers insist that they can't find workers to fill all the vacancies. Yet a lot of people are struggling.

It's hard to square that circle. It doesn't feel to a lot of Vermonters like a booming economy. It must be booming for somebody.

There's one guy actually in the Legislature, a first-term Republican from the Northeast Kingdom, who is one of those Vermonters who works three jobs. A lot of his work is outdoor manual labor. It would be interesting to hear what he has to say about this.

Brenda Siegel, the former gubernatorial candidate, has been in the Statehouse a lot this year lobbying for treatment programs, legalization of buprenorphine so people can have it on hand to help with their transition off hard drugs, other issues like that.

She says that one of the reasons she got into politics is that there's nobody else who looks like her or who has had her life. And that's true.

Our legislature is not full of millionaires; I could probably count them on one hand. But not a lot of people there have authentically struggled or have lived the life that a lot of Vermonters are living. And I think it shows in the legislative product that even the Democrats don't seem to be connected to the lives of real Vermonters, particularly the lives of Vermonters outside of the I-89 corridor between Burlington and White River Junction.

That seems to be a real dividing line where a lot of the Democratic leadership is from: Chittenden County, or the counties in between Washington and Windsor and Windham. Windham County has some people in leadership, but I don't think they're nearly as influential. And the mindset is just not in tune with what people in southern Vermont or rural Vermont really are living with.

O.P.: We've often talked about this “lifestyle tax,” the concept that people are willing to live in Vermont and accept lower wages as a tradeoff for a certain quality of life.

And that's a very personal decision - I wouldn't fault anyone for that, but I do feel that we need to start when we're talking economic development and when the governor is talking about attracting more workers to the state. We need to really look at the fact that we we rank number five out of six when it comes to the average wage in New England.

And it's so interesting to me that there is just this roadblock in this default response of, “Well, people will be here for the lifestyle. It's the Vermont way of life; it's the Vermont quality of life.” When will we reach a point where we can't actually support the Vermont quality of life because so many people are struggling?

J.W.: Yeah, and people who aren't struggling can leave for better opportunities elsewhere.

If you're an engineer or you're a lawyer or a doctor or some other professional type, if you love the lifestyle in Vermont enough to accept wages that are maybe 20 to 30 percent lower, then you will stay here.

If, on the other hand, you are growing a family and you have to start creating a college fund and fund your retirement and maybe you have student debt in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, then you might be forced to make a non-lifestyle choice. At some point early in your career, you might have to move to where the opportunities are bigger.

We will always have enough people in Vermont - people who love the land and love the lifestyle, who love to hike or ski or hunt or fish - that they will stay here. But that's not going to be enough to make us everlastingly prosperous.

And this is something that all those economic development and workforce development programs really do not address. You hear the governor taking credit for the economy, but he refers to people struggling to make ends meet mostly in the vein of refusing to raise taxes.

There isn't anything that I can see in either party's platform that really addresses the struggles of working Vermonters - and especially those in rural areas.

O.P.: There was a lot of energy and expectation and excitement at the beginning of this legislative session. We had 40 new lawmakers, and the Democrats and progressives had a conceivable supermajority. The governor was saying, “Look, let's all get along and we'll try to work better than we have worked in past years.”

So it seemed really exciting, but as we're coming to the end of the session I'm feeling like, “Uh, what actually happened?”

J.W.: I actually wrote about the expectations for the Democrats going in. The Republicans lost 10 seats in the House and a couple in the Senate, and they already had tiny numbers. A lot of Democrats ran on climate change. Other Democrats ran on getting a strong party majority so that they could get stuff done in spite of Governor Scott.

It has seemed to a lot of people around the Statehouse like it has been both much more difficult and much less rewarding than it should have been, compared to expectations after the November results.

It has been underwhelming. I think that's fair to say.

You can pick your poison here, but some people see a failure of leadership in the Legislature. I'm sure that House Speaker Mitzi Johnson would object to that characterization.

Actually, here's one truth: as Republicanism has gotten an increasingly worse name in Vermont, a fair number of people who would have been Republicans if they had entered politics 15, 20, 30 years ago are now running as Democrats.

And a lot of places that 10 or 15 years ago would have elected a Republican to the Legislature are now electing Democrats, but they're not necessarily electing Burlington Progressive/Democrats. These politicians don't call themselves “Blue Dog,” but they do try to reflect their constituencies.

If you are from a purple district or even until recently a red district, then how do you balance being a Democrat with representing your constituency?

O.P.: That's a good point.

J.W.: They vote more conservatively because they fear for re-election or because they want to fairly reflect their constituents' needs and wants.

You have a freshman lawmaker, Lucy Rogers (D-Waterville). She is a young, active person. She graduated from the University of Vermont and has done a lot of community work. She is very much in touch with the needs and desires and views of her constituency, and she feels an obligation - it's not at all to protect her political future; it's all about feeling an obligation to reflect the people who elected her. So she's not going to vote with the caucus all the time.

There are people like that who you could easily see as moderate Republicans. Charlie Kimball (D-Woodstock) used to be a banker. Tim Briglin (D-Thetford) from the Upper Valley is a very successful investment professional. These are people who might have been Republicans back in the day of Bob Stafford and Jim Jeffords and Dick Snelling, but now their only real home is the Democratic Party.

And it might very well be that that is diluting the political purity of the Democratic caucus even as it gets bigger.

In a recent big Twitter discussion, one Democrat chimed in with something along the lines of, “Well, we just need to push out and push on and elect more Democrats.”

And I responded, “Maybe the caucus would be bolder. There'd be a bigger margin to play with. But those hypothetical extra [Democrats] would come from swing (or red) districts. I've seen plenty of concern by House leadership for the political welfare of 'vulnerable' lawmakers.”

“If the caucus had 5-10 more lawmakers from 'purple' states, there could very well be even more concern for 'vulnerable' incumbents. What the caucus really needs is more boldness from those who represent 'safe' districts.”

What Democrats really need is more progressive candidates from the solid blue areas who have a legislator who's been there for a long time and has gotten very comfortable and is in a safe district where they are never threatened for re-election. A lot of those people have become either conservative or complacent. There are a lot of people there who have been there for a long time and, at the very most. they are not nearly as energetic as they were when they got there.

If you want to talk about strengthening the Democratic majority, you don't really need to win more Republican seats. What you need is more energy in the Democratic seats.

I have heard little stirrings here and there of young Democrats and young progressives who might be willing to take on entrenched incumbents. And I want to look around a little more and see if this is a movement of any sort.

There are a lot of people who are saying maybe a Democratic legislature, but it's not doing the job. I think there might be a lot of that after this session.

O.P.: I think that's something we will definitely need to keep an eye on. It's certainly something that I have been seeing in the Windham County area, specifically Brattleboro, watching a lot more organization happening among people who are declaring themselves as progressives. They are coming up with agendas and benchmarks for town government.

J.W.: Another reason why progressives - small p and large P - are upset with the Legislature this year is there is virtually no chance that 2020 will not be another great year for Democrats in Vermont.

Donald Trump will be up for re-election, unless he's in jail by then. Liberal voters are going to have every reason to turn out at least as strongly as they did in 2018. If ever there was a time for Democrats to be bold, it should have been now. I think a lot of people are feeling that way.

O.P.: So as this legislative session is winding down, what will you be looking at next week?

J.W.: Well, whatever is still left in the Legislative session will be priority number one.

I will tell you a brief story that one of my fellow reporters observed. On Wednesday, in the early afternoon, the state Senate came into session. They voted on one relatively minor bill and then they had a vote on a resolution honoring Senator Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) on the 65th anniversary of the opening of his grocery store in Colchester, which is a nice little place. Everybody in town goes there, he makes great sandwiches, etc.

But they took time out in the middle of the end game of the Legislature not only to pass this resolution and give him a standing ovation, but they then adjourned to go have cake.

O.P.: Oh dear.

J.W.: Like, Marie Antoinette much? [Laughter.]

And I'm sure the optics of it didn't even occur to them, because they're all part of this collective. But it was just kind of a moment.

I realize they they can pass bills and and get stuff done even after a cake break. In fact, maybe they could put the sugar to good use. But it was a moment that made the Senate look completely out of touch with the rest of Vermont.

And who knows? The Legislature might surprise us. Sometimes, the last-minute stuff really does produce an authentic blizzard of activity.

But right now, the outlook is decidedly mixed.

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