NEWFANE — With the Vermont State House full of newcomers — roughly one-third of the legislators are first-termers this year — House Majority Leader Emily Long has her work cut out for her.
The Newfane Democrat is now in her fifth term in Montpelier, where she represents her hometown of Newfane, plus Townshend and Marlboro. This is her second term as House Majority Leader — a job, she says, that requires her to keep the legislative process humming along.
“The majority leader is the head of the majority caucus, which in our case is the Democratic caucus,” Long said. “And my role is to basically make sure that our work runs smoothly.”
“I keep things focused,” she continued. “I step in for the speaker as presiding officer when needed. I help with training for members, making sure that people know the process.”
This year, with so many newcomers, orientation has been particularly key. Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski and her staff partnered with the Snelling Center for Government — a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Williston that champions the late Gov. Richard Snelling’s “vision of government that works for the people of Vermont” — to provide four days of intense training.
“When you’ve never been in the building, been in session, or been here as a legislator, it’s a lot different,” Long said. “You have people surrounding you all the time, tapping you on the shoulder and saying they want to meet with you.”
Long has spent the early part of the session teaching people the process of being a legislator — a demanding job, she said.
“New members have to learn how to use their time and take care of themselves,” Long said. “It’s long days and long nights. You have to know the process. You have to learn rules. You have to know how to deal with not just your own policy priorities, but how to balance the needs of your constituents.”
Constituent needs can change a legislator’s mindset, Long said, explaining that when the lawmakers began their run for office, they were addressing one narrow set of constituents — Democratic voters — and they “ran on their own values.”
“But once they’ve been elected, they realize that they’re representing a lot more people than just the ones who elected them in their district,” she continued.
“There are a lot of competing priorities there,” Long said. “So they have to learn how to deal with all of them.”
Long is good at answering questions and teaching the process.
“You have to make sure people understand how things work in committee, how things work on the floor, how to interact with lobbyists, how to respond to constituents, how to use social media, how to report a bill, how to read a bill, how to redress legislation, how to do research, and how to get support for their bills,” she said.
“There are so many layers of things. How do you draft a piece of legislation? You have to know who to go to. And how do you get co-sponsors? You have to know the deadlines for submitting bills.
“Every single day, there are so many layers of things for new legislators to learn,” Long said.
Life with a supermajority
The Democrats have a strong majority right now. Their priorities are not surprising, and housing — especially affordable housing — is a huge issue for the legislators.
“I went up to a legislative breakfast at Grace Cottage Hospital, and one of the things they told us is that they were able to attract a primary care doctor, but the person couldn’t find housing and didn’t take the job,” Long said. “Housing is a huge barrier to bringing in workforce here.”
A lot of the housing conversation centers on Act 250, Vermont’s notoriously strict land use and development law.
“We love the culture of Vermont, and Act 250 has helped us preserve Vermont and the rural nature of our state,” Long said. “But without some growth, we can’t provide the housing that’s needed for the workforce.”
She enumerates some ideas.
“So is there a way we can help expand downtown growth? There’s some legislation that’s been proposed to try to allow more growth in downtown. Will we allow accessory dwelling units? Can we change our zoning laws to allow a little more concentrated growth in our downtown?” she asks.
Last year a great deal of federal money came into the state; much of it was diverted to the housing crisis.
“We put something like $300 million into housing,” Long said. “We put put money into helping out first-time homebuyers. We [made] rehabilitation and rebuilding money available for buildings that already exist to turn them into housing. We have put quite a significant amount of money into folks who are currently unhoused. We’re trying to get them into housing. So we’re working on that.”
Gov. Phil Scott vetoed “our idea of a statewide rental registry,” Long said. “But we would love to see us continue to get a better understanding of the rental housing that we have in the state.”
A rental registry would be a good way to get a handle on the situation of short-term rentals for vacationers. Many units that once were available for long-term, stable housing have been taken off the market and made available for visitors, driving up costs for those trying to live and work in the area.
“That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that,” Long said. “Short-term rentals are an important part of our state. But how many homes are short-term rentals? And how many are long-term rentals?”
“What are the challenges around rental housing? It’s very hard to find rental housing. Windham County is particularly difficult.”
Climate policy is also on people’s minds.
“It is a big issue, much more than it ever was in the past,” Long said. “And that’s good, because we are all dealing with it all the time. So we’re working on that, trying to figure out what is the best path forward.”
The Senate is now also working on child care legislation; Long anticipates seeing that body’s bill after crossover, the midpoint in the legislative session when laws originating in the House go to the Senate and vice-versa. She knows that workforce development and continued funding of the universal school meals bill are also in the hopper.
“That’s been on the minds of a lot of folks, and we funded it through this year,” Long said. “Now there’s a lot of conversation about whether we’re going to be able to continue funding it. The newly reconstituted Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry is taking testimony on universal school meals.”
Unlike other representatives, Long does not serve on a committee.
“We’ve debated quite a bit about that,” she said. “Every majority leader has a really hard time finding time to be in committee. The demands of the job are pretty great.”
Typically, a committee member sits in meetings and hears testimony on the bills under its jurisdiction.
“But I can’t vote on a bill if I haven’t been there for the testimony,” Long said. “So it was very hard, as majority leader to be a member of a committee. In the last biennium I was assigned to the Health Care Committee, and I didn’t vote on bills in there because I didn’t have the time to be in committee day after day. Frankly, when you’re sitting in a committee, your focus is there. It’s very intensive work. I know. I did it for many years. You’re really focused on your narrow policy area; you have to make an effort to find out about other legislation.”
Long does sit on two committees, the House Rules Committee and the Joint Rules Committee, but these are process committees designed to help legislation flow. They do not write legislation.
The joint committee — the House and the Senate — decides, for example, when crossover will occur.
“Every year about this time we meet to decide the date that bills need to be finalized in one body so they can cross over to the other body,” Long said.
“We have to finalize our work by a certain date and get it over to the other body so that they have time to work on it. The budget starts in the house, and we need to get it to the Senate.”
This year, policy bills will cross over on March 17, and March 20 is the money bill crossover date.
“We always give an extra week for bills that require money committees to review them because they contain implications for either appropriations or revenue,” Long said. “The four bills that are exempted from these dates are the ’big’ money bills — the budget, the revenue bill typically called the ‘miscellaneous tax bill,’ the transportation budget bill, and the institutions bill, called the ‘capital bill.’”
When Long first started in leadership, a meeting of the House Rules Committee was rare.
Then came Covid.
“When I first got on House Rules, we only met as needed, when we needed to make changes to our rules,” Long said. “When Covid came, it just blew up the Rules Committee. We were meeting constantly. In fact, right after Covid, we were generally meeting daily trying to figure out how we were going to keep government working.”
This year, the many retirements in the House gave leadership the opportunity to restructure part of the process.
Long said the leaders “tried to look at the retirements as an opportunity as well as a loss of institutional memory,” she said. “So we restructured some of the committees and actually reduced the number of committees by one. So we had 14 last year and 13 this year. It made it a little easier for me to not be assigned to a committee.”
Long must still make herself familiar with all the legislation wending its way through the committees. The rest of her time is taken up with her constituents’ needs.
“My constituents are no different than anyone else’s,” she said. “Housing is probably the biggest challenge for folks. Trying to find housing is really hard. And businesses are struggling to find employees. Education is always at the top of the minds of our rural communities. We talk quite often about paid family leave. Child care is a constant challenge for folks. These are issues for my constituents, but they’re also issues for all all Vermont communities.”
More specific challenges are traffic calming in Newfane, where people tend to speed through the town center, and concerns about whether remote voting will continue.
Zoom has changed the world; even the legislators are interested in remote voting, something that House leadership must consider, Long said.
“There’s been a growing request for us to be able to allow some remote voting,” she explained. “Right now, if a legislator is sick, whether they have Covid or are sick with something else, or if their roads are bad and they couldn’t get in that day — because, you know, some people commute every day — if they can’t come physically into the building, they could still participate.
“With Covid, we’ve created a whole new system of technology that that allows us to Zoom into our committee meetings. Right now we allow members to participate. So if you’re in a committee, and you have a question, you can raise your hand and get your question answered. You can hear witnesses and participate fully.
“But you are not counted as part of the quorum of the committee, and you cannot vote in a committee when you are participating remotely,” she said.
“That’s the way our past practice was, prior to Covid. So there’s a growing initiative out there, and a growing request to be able to allow at least some limited voting.”
The leadership is not considering voting from the floor of the House, however.
“We did do that, of course, during the pandemic,” Long said. “It was the only way we got anything done. But a hybrid model is a much harder thing to navigate. And, frankly, in a committee you’re taking testimony to develop legislation to recommend to the full body of the House. That’s a different layer of voting, as opposed to voting on the floor, where you’re actually enacting laws.”
There is a lot of talk this year about Democrats having a “super majority” that can override any veto from the governor if the party members all vote affirmatively. But Long is seeing it a different way.
“The goal of having an expanded majority is to work with the governor and his administration and hear their input while we’re drafting legislation,” she said.
“This gives both branches of government the opportunity to collaborate where we can,” Long continued. “I believe that is what Vermonters expect of us.”
“We could still pass legislation that doesn’t have the governor’s support, and he could still veto legislation, but at least we would hear about those concerns during the process instead of reading about them in a veto letter.”