The opening day of the legislative biennium always features lots of firsts, but this year’s had even more than most. And with a new House Speaker, a new Senate president and a new governor in town, lawmakers are trying to get familiar with some uncharted legislative territory.
It’ll be awhile before lawmakers hit their stride in Montpelier. For the dozens of newly-elected representatives especially, the first weeks of the session will more an exercise in orientation than in policy making.
But lawmakers face some daunting challenges in 2017, namely the resolution of a fiscal year 2018 budget that, by some estimates, already has a more than $70 million shortfall. And after getting sworn into office en masse Wednesday morning, House lawmakers got a request from their newly-elected speaker.
“My main request for all of you is to focus in being curious, and asking good questions,” South Hero Rep. Mitzi Johnson said.
Johnson easily beat out Republican challenger Linda Myers – the vote was 100-50 – in the race for speaker.
“Take time to understand the problem that we are trying to solve, and we have a lot of tough problems to tackle,” Johnson said in her first address as House speaker.
Vermont may have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, Johnson said, and median wages here are higher than the national average.
“But the distribution of good jobs and good wages is not evenly distributed throughout our state, so how can we spread that economic opportunity to all areas of Vermont?” Johnson said.
The concept of “two Vermonts” was a popular one, it turned out. Over in the Senate, after winning a unanimous vote to serve as his chamber’s president pro tem, Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe played on the same theme.
“Put simply, there is no shortage of legislative work needed to improve the lives of Vermonters, and this will not and cannot be a thumb-twiddlers’ club,” Ashe said.
Ashe says Vermont enjoys plenty of national accolades – best place to raise a family, for instance, or healthiest state in the country. Ashe says that for some people in this state, those kinds of superlatives are a fair reflection of reality.
But he says there’s another Vermont.
“The other Vermont is filled with people who have been at best holding the line, but more likely have been losing a little economic ground in the decade past that has benefited some so greatly,” Ashe said.
Outside the Statehouse, a coalition of groups staged a rally designed to remind lawmakers of that other Vermont. Speakers, like Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, said raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour should be high on the list of legislative priorities.
Newly-elected Rep. Selene Colburn, a Progressive from Burlington, spoke to the 100 or so people gathered on the Statehouse steps for the event. She recounted some of the advice she’d been given by Statehouse veterans: “about holding back, going small, going slow, being careful.”
“And I’m listening, because I want to be efficient in that building and I want to show humility and I want to do a good job,” Colburn said. “But, I also didn’t get elected to be in that building to think small.”
Colburn said she met recently with an advisor to Bernie Sanders.
“And he said, ‘Think big.’ He said, that is, Bernie would tell you, ‘Think big. People will tell you to think small, think big.’ So thank you for thinking big, this coalition that has come together,” Colburn said.
The kind of “big thinking” that liberal activists have in mind might soon find itself at odds with the calls for “fiscal sustainability” that have become the calling card of Governor-elect Phil Scott.
Scott, who will deliver his inaugural address Thursday afternoon, says he’ll reject any legislative proposal that requires raising new revenues, or imposes new mandates on businesses.
Johnson was only moments into her tenure as speaker when she made her first notable mark on House business. She announced the creation of a new committee – the House Committee on Energy and Technology – and said that she’s decided to restructure several others.
“The workload among committees is not even,” Johnson said in an interview after her floor speech.
By merging legislative oversight of technology issues into a single House committee, Johnson says lawmakers can “do a better job of looking at the state’s IT infrastructure, which is a major interface with Vermonters, to make government work better.”
Johnson has also increased the number of members in the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, from eight to 11, so that panel can dedicate greater focus to issues like affordable housing.
Johnson is also taking oversight of mental health issues out of the Committee on Human Services and into the Committee on Health Care. If mental health care is going to put on par with physical care, Johnson says, it needs to be considered by the same legislative panel.