BRATTLEBORO — The job of state legislator has its ups and downs and sideways.
Two weeks ago, The Commons reported on the most memorable moments that members of our Windham County delegation experienced during their time in Montpelier. Now it is time to learn about the priorities they accomplished and some of their more interesting frustrations.
The first frustration is easy: Republican Gov. Phil Scott's veto of the Legislature's budget on May 27, which evoked scathing comments from Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, and, with a few exceptions, condemnation by Windham County's mostly Democratic legislative delegation.
Democrats in both the House and the Senate outnumber Republicans to such an extent that they can override the governor's veto if they vote along party lines. The Legislature has scheduled a three-day “veto session” beginning June 21 to review the budget and six other vetoed bills.
The budget must be resolved since the fiscal year begins July 1. There appears to be only a 3% difference in the budget proposed by Scott and the one proposed by the Legislature, but those funds include most of the social safety-net programs that are non-negotiable for the Democrats, such as money for childcare.
Scott believes that his veto will be overridden.
“We've been working to reach agreement with leadership since last October,” he said in an interview with Vermont Business Magazine. “We have the same general goals but have different ideas on how to pay for them.”
Scott said he “thought leadership and I could resolve these funding issues.”
“I played it straight,” he said. “There are economic storm clouds coming. And they have the votes to override in any case.”
Of the Windham County Democrats, most say they will be voting to override the veto; only one, Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, is planning to vote no, because of the Legislature's refusal to budget money to extend the recently expired motel voucher system for homeless Vermonters.
Legislative priorities make it through the process
This year, Windham County sent two new senators - Nader Hashim and Wendy Harrison - to Montpelier.
Hashim believes a large majority of his priorities made it through the legislative process.
“The top two issues I heard from voters had to do with housing and childcare,” he said. “We passed both, which provide significant investments and policy changes in both of these areas.”
Hashim also said that he was very interested in taking steps to reduce the backlog of cases in the judicial system while also addressing issues that lie “at the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system.”
“We were able to pass bills that create a forensic mental health facility, reduce the number of hearings for different cases, and create more positions in the judiciary,” he said.
Harrison said she was happy that her personal priorities - housing, child care, and climate change - were also the priorities of others in the Legislature.
“On the last day of the session, I felt an immense sense of gratitude for my colleagues and pride for us as a group to have crafted and passed some really significant legislation,” she said.
Those bills are designed to increase all types of housing, provide childcare subsidies for families, ensure that child caregivers are paid better wages, and help moderate and low income Vermonters to be less dependent on fossil fuels, she said.
Rep. Leslie Goldman, D–Bellows Falls, wanted to support and expand the health care workforce, something badly needed in Vermont. She also wanted to support and improve access to health care service. As a nurse practitioner and a member of the House Committee on Health Care, she feels that she has basically succeeded in these priority areas.
“We created enabling legislation to join the psychology, counseling, physical therapy and the audiology and speech-language pathology compact,” Goldman said. “These interstate agreements allow for a more streamlined process for professionals to acquire licensure and practice in Vermont and improve access for Vermonters to these important services.”
Her committee added $3 million for the nursing forgivable loan program and $3.8 million for critical healthcare occupational scholarships to support students in the healthcare fields.
“Students who receive this support will be required to work in Vermont for each year of the loan received,” Goldman said. “And to support providers practicing in Vermont, we increased Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary and specialty care. This support allows medical practices to better serve Vermonters.”
Another of her priorities was a close examination of the Vermont Emergency Medical Services system, which she believes is currently underfunded and understaffed.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said her top priorities included securing help for smaller municipalities so that they had the best chance to use the once-in-a-lifetime federal funds that are available and to keep obstacles out of the way of Communications Union Districts.
“I also became involved in the House efforts to include some Act 250 measures in the housing bill,” she said.
Sibilia said she accomplished most of her goals.
For one thing, she worked with members of Scott's team as well as House and Senate members to hammer out “details for the $3 million in rural capacity funding that was included in the budget adjustment.”
She also worked with the tripartisan Rural Caucus “to ensure modest Act 250 exemptions made it into the housing bill.”
Rep. Tristan D. Roberts, D-Halifax. went up to Montpelier with a priority to moderate the cost of Act 250 reviews.
“I advocated for common-sense measures that should make it easier for builders to bring new housing to the places we need it most: our downtowns and village centers.” As of this writing, the bill is on the governor's desk.
There are always frustrations doing this kind of work, said Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro. “The nature of the work is compromise,” she said.
However, many of the legislators mentioned feeling anger as well as frustration over the misinformation - mostly promulgated by those profiting from the fossil fuel industry - pumped out in an effort to defeat the Affordable Heat Act. (Scott vetoed the bill; the House and Senate overrode the veto and passed the bill into law.) These included statements by the governor as well as flyers displayed at gas station cash registers calling the legislation the state's “Un-Affordable Heat Act.”
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, accused the governor's secretary of natural resources, Julie Moore, of announcing that the act would add about 70 cents per gallon to fuel costs in a committee hearing, where she described it as a “back of the envelope” calculation.
“She later admitted it was a guess, but it's now being quoted as fact by the governor, every Republican legislator, and fuel dealers,” Mrowicki said. “And it's not true.”
The bill, he said, “would determine if we create some sort of surcharge and, if so, how much would be needed.” He described it as “basically a plan to have the Public Utilities Commission do the work to help set up outcomes, indicators, and policies to meet climate goals and actually lower and stabilize heating costs.”
Mrowicki's other frustration was that he could not get a CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Bill, which he co-sponsored, across the finish line. A CROWN bill, which is a law in 18 other states, protects discrimination based on hairstyle and texture.
“This discrimination primarily is experienced by people of color, and schools have suspended students for wearing their hair in a way school officials disapprove of, such as braids or afros,” Mrowicki said.
Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, extended her frustration even further.
“This session I have been deeply disappointed by the lack of collaboration and the misleading information coming out of the governor's office,” she said.
“The governor has stated that he cares about addressing climate change, addressing the childcare system, and protecting the most vulnerable Vermonters, but his proposed budget and his resistance to climate policies coming out of the Legislature say something different,” Coffey continued. “We have developed policy and a budget that reflects Vermonters' values and priorities.”
Many legislators, including Coffey, were disheartened that the bill that Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, wrote to provide paid family leave had to be tabled.
“While we passed it in the House, I was disappointed that we were unable to get it through the Senate,” Bos-Lun said.
And Burke agreed. “We will try next session,” she said.
Goldman's biggest disappointment came through Medicaid eligibility redeterminations.
“During the public health emergency, Medicaid paused its usual policy of yearly redeterminations of eligibility to obtain coverage as required by federal law,” she said. “Many individuals had access to coverage regardless of income.”
Now that the public health emergency has been lifted, redeterminations will be restarting.
“This is stressful for Vermonters who may no longer qualify to receive Medicaid,” Goldman said. “The hope is that with the increased support of the Vermont Department of Health Access, individuals will be able to buy insurance on Vermont Health Connect - our version of the Affordable Care Act [health insurance marketplace] - and, with significant subsidies from the federal government that will make it affordable.
“The re-determination process could take over a year,” she said. “I am worried about the potential that this change of coverage could have for Vermonters and the ripples it may have in reducing their insurance and therefore access to care.”
Summing it up
All in all, the legislators felt humbled and empowered by their time in the Legislature this session.
“Given that we had roughly one-third new membership in the House and nine of the 13 committees have new committee chairs, I am very impressed with the quality of the work in committees and the collaboration across committees to get priority legislation across the finish line this session,” Coffey said.
Being in the Legislature is like being in an intense graduate program, Burke said.
“Every day is a learning experience,” Burke said. “There is deeper learning about the legislative process, about human nature, about power and how to use it widely, about when to speak effectively and when to wait, and about the importance of relationships and keeping your word.”