Closed-Door Legislative Meetings Raise GOP Hackles

Oct 6, 2015

The next legislative session doesn't begin until January, but some lawmakers are already working on next year's budget challenges. And a prominent Republican says closed-door meetings between lawmakers and administration officials are side-stepping what should be a public process.

On Wednesday afternoon, in a conference room off-site from the Statehouse, the chairs of several House and Senate committees will meet with members of the Shumlin administration to discuss issues facing the Department of Taxes.

"We just want to have sort of a broad conversation about what are the challenges and opportunities that the tax department is facing long-range," says South Hero Rep. Mitzi Johnson, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations.

It isn't the first meeting of its kind this fall, and it won't be the last. Johnson says these informal gatherings will help legislative leaders get a better grasp of the issues they'll be facing when the full body returns in January.

"Just begin to chat about how we can do things differently, also using the opportunity to put the administration on notice ... that the Legislature is going to be thinking about the budgeting process differently," Johnson says.

It's an approach that has drawn sharp criticism from House Minority Leader Don Turner. Turner says these closed-door meetings will limit legislative participation in what should be a public process.

"I think it just shows when you have too much party and we have single-party rule. We need to bring balance back to Montpelier," Turner says.

"We just want to have sort of a broad conversation about what are the challenges and opportunities that the tax department is facing long-range." -Mitzi Johnson, (D-South Hero), House Committee on Appropriations.

Johnson has helped orchestrate the pre-session gatherings, and she says they'll allow the full body to hit the ground running when lawmakers return in January. She says committees of jurisdiction will be giving more scrutiny to agency budgets across state government this year.

She says lawmakers will demand a more rigorous accounting not only of the programs funded by taxpayer dollars, but the return citizens are getting on those public expenditures.

Turner, however, says he thinks the pre-session meetings more likely will give Democratic leaders a chance to grease the skids in advance of the next session, and ensure preordained outcomes for the budget debate.

"Everything is going to be predetermined, and they're going to come in, and they're going to jam this down everyone's throat," Turner says.

House Speaker Shap Smith says Turner's concerns are unfounded.

"It seems to me that it's good government process, and I'm just surprised that people would complain about it," Smith says.

"These people are the majority... telling us, 'Oh, we're having a meeting, but you can't come.' So it's just a blatant misuse of power from my perspective." - Don Turner, VT House Minority Leader

Smith and Johnson say lawmakers meet privately with administration officials in advance of every legislative session. The only difference this year, according to Smith and Johnson, is that they're pulling in a wider range of legislators, including some Republicans.

"This does not replace the committee meetings that will happen, the robust discussion that will happen around the issues, it just makes sure that we're efficient when we get there," Smith says.

Johnson says she's been careful to ensure that none of the meetings include a quorum of any legislative committee. And she says she's worked with legislative lawyers to make sure they don't run afoul of open meeting laws.

Johnson says she told Turner the meetings were happening as a professional courtesy. Turner says he isn't impressed by the voluntary notification.

"These people are the majority, they're controlling the information. They're even blatantly telling us, ‘Oh, we're having a meeting, but you can't come.' So it's just a blatant misuse of power from my perspective," Turner says.  

Lawmakers are facing a fiscal year 2017 budget shortfall that could be in excess of $130 million.