Along the way I like to photo the Senate in action to provide visual reminders of the session. The following is a mini 2012 Senate Year in Photos. I hope this provides some sense of what goes on in Vermont’s “citizen” legislature.
Opening Day, and Week One
The first day of each year in the Legislature is a bit like the first day of school. You reconnect, after an eight month separation, with people with whom you spent four intense months during the previous session.
Senator Dick McCormack, from Bethel, is a folk singer whose performing took him from New York City in the 60s to Madeline Kunin campaign concerts in the 80s. He frequently signs off at the end of the day by declaring “Elvis has left the building.” Here he is arriving for day one. Dick is a good friend and has been great to work with on a number of issues like protecting resources for the disabled and consumer protection.
I feel really lucky that I get to serve at the same time as one of my best friends, Chris Pearson, a Representative who lives on Brookes Ave in Burlington. Chris serves on the House Health Care Committee which took the first stab at the health care reform legislation that’s been the subject of so many television and radio ads. Before carpooling back home after week one, Chris is showing off a photo of the new addition to his family. Taking time from family and normal worklives is a challenge that particularly affects younger legislators.
Week Two, Things Start Getting Serious
The Legislature meets Tuesday through Friday from January through the beginning of May. As a result, businesses and other organizations that want to meet with Legislators usually schedule events on Mondays. This makes it hard for those of us who hold down regular jobs during the session (I only attend events held before or after normal work hours for instance). In this shot, Governor Shumlin is laying out his priorities for the session at a breakfast held by the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce in South Burlington. Unlike the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which I find one of the most backward interest groups in the country, the Lake Champlain Chamber does a good job reflecting the various perspectives of their member businesses. I don’t always agree with their policies, but I often do. I also applaud them for their pro-active advocacy of marriage equality back in 2009. These events offer an opportunity to connect with constituents in a focused setting, whether it’s a business, a school district, or a non-profit service provider.
Much of the first two weeks is spent being updated on the progress of laws we passed the previous year. In this photo, Senators Dick McCormack and Randy Brock review materials in the Senate Finance Committee. I am a member of this committee, which has responsibility for taxes, utilities, health insurance, banking, and other issues. Dick and Randy have fairly opposite politics, but, as is the case with most Legislators in Vermont, they work civilly with one another.
Legislators in some states have private offices and a number of staff. Not so in Vermont. We find refuge wherever possible when we need quiet or privacy. One nice feature of the no-office culture of the Legislature is that you’re constantly passing by House and Senate members and various officials. Between the Cedar Creek Room and the cafeteria I spotted Secretary of State Jim Condos (I won a seat to the Senate the year he left) and Senator Vince Illuzzi from Derby.
Senator Mark MacDonald from Williamstown is a throw back in many ways. He’s one of the few experts in education finance in Vermont, and has reliably fought to preserve an ability-to-pay approach to funding state services generally. Mark served in the House before the Senate. I owe him a tremendous amount of thanks for spending time with me my first two years in the Senate explaining the nuances of tax policy. Every new member of the Senate quickly finds out how many issues they know little about. The tutoring of new members crosses party lines, and is a tribute to the institution.
From January to May, the State House becomes home to many administration officials as well as legislators. In this shot, three Health Department officials are in the cafeteria trying to figure out their new tech gadgets. With technology playing a greater role in state government, I’ve noticed more scenes like this – furrowed brows, puzzled looks.
In 2013 health care reform will be the signature issue of the session. Claire Ayer from Addison County is the Chair of the Senate Health and Welfare committee, and is a former nurse. After a long day of testimony she catches up with old colleague Doug Racine who is now the Secretary of the Agency of Human Services. I am indebted to Doug for teaching me the ropes in the Senate my first term when we sat side-by-side on the Senate floor. He was a great pick by Governor Shumlin for the post.
In my family of six, we were all big gesticulators. Mark MacDonald and I were clearly cut from the same cloth. Here we’re discussing the impact of health care exchanges on Vermont businesses in an early briefing.
The first month of the session flies by. On the last day of January I took this morning shot of Roman Kokadyniak, the staff assistant for the Senate Economic Development Committee which I Vice-Chair. Roman is one of the unsung staff who makes the session run smoothly. We handle a ton of paperwork over the course of four months, and Roman and his colleagues make it make sense. Like any “workplace,” staff like Roman contribute to the feel of each committee.
Later that morning while visiting with Senators Sara Kittell from Fairfield and Jeanette White from Putney, former Senator Hull Maynard from Rutland County paid a visit. Hull retired mid-way through my first term and I hadn’t seen him since. An inn-owner with his wife, Hull was once the Overseer of the Poor in his town, a position that was prevalent in Vermont communities in the old days.
The issues start to heat up when February comes. The updates are over, it’s time to get down to lawmaking. In this photo, members of the Senate and House Health Committees hold a joint hearing on the major health care reform bill. Joint hearings, often held at night, give the public an opportunity to participate while bills are being drafted and before it’s too late. On the Senate Economic Development Committee we try to hold committee meetings around the state to bring the legislature to the people, but it’s hard to pull that together logistically. Nighttime meetings are the next best thing.
During the session, those of us who are involved in most of the big issues struggle to find time to get everything done. Even the carpool is a time to have phone conferences. Here, Chris Pearson participates in a 7.30 a.m. conference call on health care reform. If you’re worried about our safety, don’t worry, we were in the backseat!
In mid-February, a few of us on the Senate Economic Development Committee wanted to better understand the implications of the then-proposed merger of CVPS and Green Mountain Power, particularly as it affected VELCO, the state’s transmission line network. We held hearings on the issue, which drew standing room only crowds. The very act of holding hearings drew criticism from groups like the Vermont Business Roundtable. On the contrary, I think when we’re talking about 75% of the state’s electric customers and the $1.3B assets of VELCO, we should be criticized if we DID NOT hold hearings. In this photo, Peter Galbraith, the former Ambassador and current Senator from Townshend, is reviewing public service board documents with a backdrop or reporters, lobbyists, and administration officials.
After some jockeying on the Senate floor, the merger issue moved to the Senate Finance Committee, of which I’m also a member. With the issue also came the reporters, the lobbyists, and the utility executives.
This was taken just before we started a Reapportionment Committee meeting. The map on the wall was what the House proposed for a new House district in Southern Vermont. Each color represents a different town. By car itwould have taken nearly an hour and a half to drive the district end to end. We opposed the district, and in the end something more reasonable was worked out. Unfortunately, good policy didn’t always prevail during redistricting. Chittenden County’s growth relative to the state offers two choices – lose towns to other Senate districts, or add another Chittenden Senator. Needless to say, other Senators did not relish the chance to give up their seat to we Chittenden voters, so they removed Huntington and Buel’s Gore from our district.
With the Town Meeting Break, March feels a little disjointed in the Capitol. Most of the big issues (health care, the budget, and taxes for example) start in the House before coming to the Senate so the Senate heats up in late March.
In this shot, new Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, with whom I served on the Burlington City Council in 2005, discusses what the House Housing and General Affairs Committee was working on. Jean was appointed to fill the remainder of Mark Larson’s term in a New North End house district. Mark left to become the commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access – no easy job. Jean’s job is tough also – entering mid-stride and trying to make a contribution. Jean’s been around legislative work for years so hit the ground running.
As March progressed some of the hot button issues started to emerge. I took this photo when Finance Committee members met with the Senate President John Campbell in his office to discuss the so-called cloud tax. The issue is whether software utilized in the cloud should be subject to tax the way a CD-ROM with Microsoft Office would be. I believed the best course of action was to call a timeout on the issue while we tried to better understand the implications of charging this tax both to businesses and consumers. To paraphrase my argument to committee members: “You look to me as the young guy for answers on tech issues, and what I can tell you is I’m totally confused by this issue.” In the end, we put a moratorium on the tax for a year and will return next year with a long-term approach.
April marks the most critical month in the Senate. We spend the most time on the floor debating the bills, and the so-called money bills all receive final action at the end of the month (the House sends them over to us in April).
While it’s a busy time, we still need to take breaks for sanity. Here a few Senators speak to the final group of legislative pages. Pages join us in three batches over the course of the session and help the flow of activity by acting as messengers. One page said in his blog: “Legislators seem to sit around a lot.” Very true.
My favorite shot of the session. Here are some Senators looking at language I wrote to make it state policy that anytime electrical ratepayers bail out a utility they get paid back the money. Inspired by the GMP/CVPS merger, it would have applied in any utility setting whether there was a merger or not. The language passed the Senate 27-3 but did not win support in the House.
As the session moves toward adjournment, Senators still in the mix on conference committees pull late nights. Taken at 10 pm, these colleagues are hashing out the final details of the Working Landscapes Bill. Harold Giard from Addison County is on the left. He’s not running again. I found Harold to have a huge heart and always spoke and voted his conscience. Ginny Lyons from Williston is on the right. Her knowledge of environmental issues is a huge asset when the Senate takes up agricultural issues.
In the waning days, there’s a lot of down time between floor sessions. In this photo, Anthony Pollina from Middlesex, and Joe Benning from Caledonia County read up on bills that we’ll be acting on in a couple hours. Anthony and Joe were both new this term and were strong advocates for their values, even if usually on the opposite end of the spectrum.
I enjoyed assembling this group of photos, and hope it helps illustrate the human side of what goes on in the State House for four months each year. I focused more on the people than the policies. The policy reflections will keep coming in separate posts. Thanks for giving me the chance to represent you and have these experiences to share.