In his nearly six years as speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, Shap Smith (D-Morristown) has earned a reputation for pushing his priorities through his Democrat-dominated chamber.
And unlike Montpelier's other top Ds — Gov. Peter Shumlin and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) — Smith says he supports controversial legislation that would require businesses to provide employees up to seven days of paid sick leave each year.
So why, after months of lobbying by liberal interest groups, is the bill stuck in the House Appropriations Committee and unlikely to get a vote on the House floor? Why won't Smith, who frames it as "a public health issue," use his reputed
legislative prowess to push the thing through?
"I don't think the landscape right at the moment is conducive to passing the legislation," the speaker says. "I think it's informed by what happened with regard to Vermont Health Connect and the fact that we required employers with fewer than 50 employees to go into the [federally mandated health insurance exchange] this past fall. And I think that, given all the nervousness around that and other issues— I don't think the landscape is working for passage of it this year."
But Voices for Vermont Children lobbyist Lindsay DesLauriers, who has led the legislative push for the bill, says Smith and his fellow Democratic leaders simply haven't invested the energy required to find the votes or craft a compromise.
"It's not that I'm interpreting it as a lack of support," she says. "But I'm interpreting it as a lack of priority."
DesLauriers, who spent much of Wednesday huddling with House members in the Statehouse cafeteria, concedes that it's unclear whether the bill would pass in its present form if it were put to a vote on the floor. But she believes that, with the energetic support of leadership, a compromise could surely win over a majority.
"The fact is we had a majority at the beginning of the session. But people felt pressure from the business lobby, which whipped up fear in their districts," she says.
Campbell, for one, says he agrees with those — such as the Vermont Grocers' Association, the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce — who oppose the bill.
"I think paid sick leave would absolutely put an undue burden on many businesses," the Senate leader says.
Campbell says he was influenced not by Montpelier's business lobby, but by entrepreneurs in his Windsor County district. And he says that while he himself would vote against it, he would "not try to kill the bill and would give it a fair shake" if it passed the House.
As for Smith, he says there's a reason he rarely suffers defeats on the House floor.
"I do not think the idea of putting a bill on the floor to see whether it can swim to shore is a good idea if you don't think it has the strength to swim to shore," he says. "One of the reasons that I'm known as somebody who can get stuff done is that I don't put things on the floor that fail."
And, he adds, "I don't think it has sufficient support in the House at the moment to pass."
Of course, plenty of bills don't have sufficient support until legislative leaders bring down the hammer. Is leadership just about reading the will of one's caucus and following its lead? Or does it entail pushing one's followers to do what's politically uncomfortable but what one considers, say, "a public health issue?"
"I think that you have to both listen to your people and
push them," he says. "And right at the moment, I am telling you, as someone who's done this job for six years, we're not
in a position to pass it."
That doesn't mean DesLauriers and her coalition plan to give up and go home. Even if their original bill dies in committee, it could always be revived later in the session as an amendment to another piece of legislation.
"As you know, there are less conventional options," she says. "Whether a viable opportunity will present itself, I don't know. But it's not like we're going to leave the Statehouse and say, 'See you guys next year.' We're going to be here. And we're going to be vigilant."