As chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, South Hero Representative Mitzi Johnson is no stranger to tough leadership assignments. As the presumptive Speaker of the House, Johnson is preparing to juggle more than just budget challenges next year, and says she wants to lawmakers to learn more about Vermont’s problems before they try to solve them.
Earlier this month, Johnson emerged as an underdog to win her caucus’ vote to replace outgoing Speaker of the House Shap Smith. The Democrats that control the Vermont House of Representatives get to choose the next speaker — a formal vote comes next week. But Johnson’s role will require her to work closely with Republicans, Progressives and Independents as well.
Johnson has worn lots of professional hats over the years. She’s done policy work at Hunger Free Vermont, worked for the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, and, prior to that, oversaw vegetable production on a farm in her home town of South Hero.
But it’s her latest job, as executive director of the Adaptive Leadership Network, that might be most instructive in her new role as House Speaker.
Johnson can still recall her first trip back to the Statehouse after taking a leadership class, in 2011, that led to her current job.
“And all of a sudden, I saw the entire building differently,” says Johnson, who, at the time, had recently been named vice-chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations.
“I started understanding why some people were compelled to move forward on some things and not on others,” she says. “The whole building started making a lot more sense to me.”
The idea behind "adaptive" leadership is to help organizations thrive in challenging environments. With a potentially $75 million budget shortfall looming, as well as policy debates on issues like marijuana legalization, Johnson will have plenty of opportunities to test her trade.
“I think [it’s about] understanding how much change is enough,” Johnson says. “You have too much change in a system and it’s chaotic. You have not enough change in a system and it’s stagnant, so finding that productive zone of opportunity.”
Determining where that opportunity lies, Johnson says, will be her first order of business in 2017.
To that end, the 46-year-old University of Vermont graduate says she’ll ask committee chairs to devote the first weeks of the session to an intensive analysis of the government institutions they oversee.
“And then look at those efforts and those programs and prioritize them, which ones are the really core functions of state government and the things that the environment we’re looking at in Vermont right now, which things are the most important for us to do?” Johnson says.
Johnson met with Governor-elect Phil Scott last week. She says she foresees serious disagreements between the incoming Republican administration, and a House and Senate dominated by Democrats.
She says, however, that “that disagreement is really healthy for Vermonters.”
“I think that disagreement is what makes us stronger, and helps make a really good process for getting at the heart of what Vermonters really need,” Johnson says.
Johnson says she appreciates Phil Scott’s emphasis on “fiscal sustainability, and she says she shares his desire to bring spending in line with revenues. But Johnson says she won’t share his pledge not to raise new taxes.
“I think at this stage of the game, it’s really important to leave your options open,” she says.
Those options may be especially necessary, according to Johnson, when it comes to finding the money needed to initiate a water-quality improvement program expected to cost more than $1 billion over the next 20 years.
“That’s a substantial conversation that we’re going to have to have in the Statehouse, and that may involve revenue,” Johnson says.
Johnson says she thinks the state’s revenue struggles might be tied in part to its outmoded tax codes, and says she’s open to considering structural reforms to those tax codes in 2017.
As for some of the policy debates on tap for 2017 – paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, or legalizing marijuana, for instance – Johnson says she isn’t at this point wedded to passage, or defeat, of any single initiative.
Johnson says instead of committing at the outset of the session to any particular policy goals, she instead wants a more open-ended conversation around a key question.
“What are the ways that we can create strong economic policy to create a good work force, and provide employers with the kind of employees they need to run and grow their business?” Johnson says.
On the issue of taxation and regulation of cannabis, Johnson says she has reservations.
“And I think my two main concerns are highway safety and use among youth,” she says.
Johnson says she’s well aware of the fact that those are already serious concerns under the state’s policy of prohibition.
“I don’t know what the right answer is on this one [issue of marijuana legalization],” Johnson says. “Honestly, this is a really tough one for me.”