Opinion: Recent legislative session more fruitful than reported
This week’s writer is Steve Terry, a former Vermont newspaper editor and a retired business executive living in Middlebury.
I have been reading the various media summaries of the just completed legislative session in Montpelier.
Vermonters might be left with the impression that it was a relatively quiet, non-eventful four and half months, and a one-day veto session that ended June 9.
Granted, the media usually focuses on the main proposals made by the governor, and then adds up the wins and losses at the end of the session for the scorecard. It is an old media custom.
While some of the high profile initiatives proposed by the governor for the 2016 session — legalization of marijuana and state pension fund divestment of coal and ExxonMobil stock did not succeed — these defeats should not color the work of the whole session.
Upon reflection, this traditional scoring method does not really capture the entire body of work for the session. Nor does it stack up against other legislative bodies in the country.
In fact, if you take the accomplishments from this past session and add them to ones racked up by the Democratic-dominated Vermont Legislature over the past few years, it’s quite an impressive list of progressive policies that few states in America could even hope to achieve.
Let’s state the obvious first. Vermont did what Congress and many other states struggle mightily to do: pass a balanced budget, transportation bill, and other necessities of government. That shouldn’t be news, but given the current state of politics in America it certainly is. Consider that it took Congress almost six years to pass a budget. Or that Illinois has been struggling to pass a budget for most of the last year, leading to billions in unpaid bills. While there is always debate over the budget in Vermont, the last six years have seen Democrats pass six balanced budgets that more or less follow government spending with growth in the larger economy.
Here is a look at what did get done as lawmakers and Vermonters were reminded by the governor in his closing address of the following accomplishments:
• Vermont will be the fifth state in America to guarantee paid sick days to its citizens.
• We’ll be the fourth to allow automatic voter registration so more people can participate in our democracy.
• And Vermont will be the seventh state to “ban the box” statewide, a measure that will help those who may have a criminal record but have turned their lives around get a job and become productive members of our society.
It’s notable that President Obama has supported every one of those policies. Because the Republican-controlled Congress is unwilling to advance any of them, however, the president has called on states to get the job done.
Vermont answered that call, and not just in the last four months.
Remember in 2014 when the nation was debating whether to raise the minimum wage?
Vermont joined a nationwide call for states to bypass Congress and raise the minimum wage. Vermont was one of the first states to do it, which helped to set the stage for this issue to be a centerpiece of the 2016 presidential campaigns.
Less noticed legislation would also make a big difference in people’s lives. For example, a bill to help the tens of thousands of Vermonters with suspended licenses will ensure people can legally drive to work or take their kids to school. An energy bill, after a quick one-day fix, will give local communities a greater voice in siting of renewable energy projects while ensuring we continue to do what’s necessary to get off coal and oil and save our planet.
Our renewable energy policies in the last few years have also been a big generator of new jobs, too. And a series of bills aimed at preventing and treating opiate and drug abuse will further help Vermonters struggling with addiction and cement Vermont’s reputation as a nationwide leader on this issue. In most cases votes on these issues were tri-partisan after being championed by Gov. Shumlin.
When we broaden our reflection to the last six years, Vermont has done a lot to make this state a better place.
A few important examples: Vermont became the first state in the nation to advance universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds. It also created the Green Mountain Care Board to control healthcare costs through a mix of new regulation and innovation. These decisions will have long-lasting positive impacts.
Finally the sleeper legislative prize for the 2016 session from my perspective goes to UVM President Tom Sullivan for his ability to persuade the Legislature to end the so-called “40-percent rule,” which limited in-state UVM tuition to no more than 40 percent of out-of-state tuition rates. This has been long sought by the university, but there was never enough trust that UVM would not use this repeal as an excuse to jack up Vermonters’ tuition rates.
Sullivan convinced the Legislature that the repeal would allow UVM to compete for more out-of-state students and take pressure off from raising in-state tuition rates. This legislation represents an important victory for UVM after decades of failure on this issue.
At a time when government gets a bad rap, let’s pause for a moment and reflect that Vermont’s elected representatives, Democrats, Republican and Progressives, in Montpelier work hard and for the most part are not rendered totally incapable of action by partisan gridlock like Washington.
No rose-colored glasses here as there is more work to be done for sure. We have an urgent need to grow our economy and figure out priorities in state spending. We need to get fiscal discipline to deal with hard-headed realities like no growth in state population.
But that’s why we have elections. Let the campaigns get into high gear.
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