The 2019 legislative session will inevitably include partisan fights and scathing floor debates, but on opening day at least, a spirit of unity prevailed in Montpelier.
As elected officials brace for showdowns over issues like paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage — not to mention how much government should spend to educate its children, clean up its water, and help the poor — Democratic lawmakers and the Republican governor say they’re trying to map out some common ground.
At an open-door gathering in his ceremonial office in the Statehouse Wednesday morning, Gov. Phil Scott said it’s a new year, “and a clean slate.”
“And I think there’s a lot we can be proud of, a lot we can work together on, a lot of enthusiasm this morning across party lines coming in to talk about what we can do together,” Scott said.
Scott and Democratic lawmakers have feuded bitterly at times over the past two years. But Scott said he anticipates having a more constructive relationship.
“Because I think we have a lot of the same goals, we just may have different approaches on how to get there. And we’ll just sort that all out,” Scott said.
Appeals for cross-party unity were the order of the day Wednesday. In a speech to newly elected members, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson addressed Republican Minority Leader Pattie McCoy by name.
“You have a vital role in bringing a range of perspectives to the table. And I’m committed to working together to make sure that all voices are heard,” Johnson said. “We cannot lead this state without you.”
Leaders of the House and Senate both said Wednesday that they want lawmakers to focus on the state’s struggling rural economy during the 2019 legislative session. In her opening day remarks, Johnson singled out problems facing rural areas — two of the greatest needs, she said, are improving cell service and guaranteeing access to broadband.
"We have to do more to make sure that we have a strong, diverse rural economy and agricultural sector moving forward," Johnson said. "And we have to ensure that our successes touch every corner of our state."
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said in a speech Wednesday morning that addressing income inequality, including the disparity between the state's cities and towns, should drive the work of the Legislature. He said there are now "two Vermonts" — one where families have a chance to improve their lives, and the other that leaves people stuck in low-wage jobs.
"I challenge each of you, I challenge each committee you will serve on, and I challenge myself to never let go of this one question: 'What can we do to improve life in the other Vermont?'" Ashe said. "Answering this question is all of our jobs, and touches on almost every policy area we'll work on."
Ashe mentioned raising the minimum wage and developing state policies to combat climate change as two top priorities.
But the voices seeking to be heard in Montpelier don’t belong exclusively to lawmakers. A broad range of constituencies braved heavy snow Wednesday to make sure they were part of the chorus.
They included people like JT Dodge, a Newbury resident who organized a rally against a proposed tax on carbon-emitting fuels.
“This is the opening of the legislative session. This is us rallying the troops,” Dodge said. “This is saying that, ‘We’re here — look, you can see us.’”
Lawmakers would have been hard pressed to miss Dodge and the 40 or so Vermonters who showed up for his anti-carbon-tax rally Wednesday - they all wore yellow traffic vests, as a nod to carbon tax protesters in France.
“I just can’t afford to spend more money — we can’t afford to spend more money on fuel to drive to work,” Dodge said.
Statehouse advocacy on Wednesday came from a diverse group of constituents.
Ginger Knight, a junior at U-32 High School in East Montpelier, spoke at an event hosted by Rights and Democracy. The organization will urge lawmakers to pass paid family and medical leave and a $15 minimum wage.
“Today I am here because the bills that you pass impact my life as well as all the other youth in Vermont,” Knight said.
For the freshman lawmakers who will have to weigh competing requests from various interest groups, the next few months will present a steep learning curve.
White River Junction Rep. Becca White is one of the 40 new faces in the House of Representatives. She said one of the better pieces of advice on legislating came from someone who reminded her she has two ears, and one mouth.
“I’ve heard over and over again that the best way to really accomplish your goals is to figure out who your allies are,” White said. “And I think you can do that better by listening than you can by just talking, so lots of listening and [a] little less talking than I normally would do.”