Gov. Phil Scott has vetoed legislation that would have created a new position in the executive branch to deal with systemic racism in state government. Scott, however, says he’s moving forward voluntarily with an almost identical initiative.
When lawmakers decided they needed to address the issue of systemic racism in state government, they were acting on more than a hunch.
That’s because the data have become pretty clear: People of color are pulled over by police more often than white people. They’re sent to jail more frequently than white people. They leave the state workforce at higher rates than their white co-workers and are paid less while they’re there.
“The bias that favors and promotes white culture operates within all of our institutions, whether it’s government or private institutions that denies people of color their rights,” said Karen Richards, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
Richards was among the people behind the push for S.281, a bill passed by the House and Senate earlier this month, which would have created a new position in the executive branch, called the Chief Racial Equity and Diversity Officer. Chittenden County Sen. Chris Pearson says the legislation would have also established something called a Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Equity Advisory Panel.
“That puts us on a path to eradicate systemic racism that is inherent in our society and specifically in state government,” Pearson said.
But the governor’s legal counsel, Jaye Pershing Johnson, said there’s a constitutional problem with the bill. While lawmakers want the Chief Racial Equity Officer to be appointed by the governor, the legislation strips him of the power to fire the person holding that position.
Pershing Johnson said it’s a clear violation of separation of powers.
“When they start to intercede in governor’s appointments, that’s when they cross the line,” Pershing Johnson said.
Lawyers for the Legislature disagree with that legal analysis.
While the bill may have been vetoed, however, Scott has issued an executive order that mirrors the legislation almost identically.
“We think the bill raised some valid concerns about the inherent biases and systemic racism, and we felt that we should move ahead in this area,” Pershing Johnson said.
There’s one key difference between the executive order and the bill: The chief racial equity officer will now serve at the pleasure of the governor.
Pearson says that’s a serious change because that new position will have an important job: “Ask hard questions, demand answers, and ultimately insist on behavioral changes,” Pearson said.
Airing government’s dirty laundry will likely be a contentious undertaking, Pearson said. In order to do it effectively, Pearson said that person will need autonomy.
“And if that person works at the pleasure of the governor, I think you lose that independence,” Pearson said.
Pershing Johnson doesn’t foresee the same problem.
“We think that they’re going to be particularly effective because ultimately they do answer to the governor,” she said.
Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris, a sponsor of the bill that was vetoed, said she hopes Pershing Johnson is right.
“I don’t believe it’s going to be an overnight change in any way shape or form. It’s a massive undertaking. It’s a massive undertaking but an important first step,” Morris said.
Morris said the creation of a cabinet-level position to deal with systemic racism in state government is unprecedented in Vermont and “historic for our state.”
She said she also thinks the administration is making a good faith effort to execute the intent of the bill that was vetoed.
“I think the administration, through the executive order, I think they’ve shown their level of commitment and their level of interest in this work,” Morris said.