A Wave of Retirements Washes Over the Pandemic-Weary Vermont Legislature | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Wave of Retirements Washes Over the Pandemic-Weary Vermont Legislature

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Published May 25, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 21, 2022 at 4:01 p.m.


TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Corey Parent loves nearly everything about representing Franklin County in the Vermont Senate. The Republican from St. Albans enjoys the collegial atmosphere at the Statehouse, finds the policy debates invigorating and is honored to serve his constituents.

But as his legislative duties increasingly pulled him away from his 4-year-old son and 7-month-old daughter, he could no longer justify the sacrifices.

"My son would look at me sometimes and say, 'Daddy, are you going to be home for dinner tonight?'" Parent recalled last week. "It was just like, Oh, man."

Parent, the assistant manager of the Town of St. Albans, has joined a wave of lawmakers heading for the exits this year. After a full biennium conducted during a global pandemic, young and old are burned out, fed up, going broke or ready to retire. Several are stepping down to run for higher office.

To date, 11 of Vermont's 30 senators and 41 of 150 House members have announced they will not seek reelection this year, a turnover unheard of in modern memory.

The final tally of departures won't be known until the Thursday, May 26, deadline to file to run in the August 9 primary. But many lawmakers have already let colleagues and constituents know they won't be back next year.

Nine of the 14 chairs of House standing committees are leaving — a huge chunk of Democratic leadership. Some have decades of service in state government.

"This is going to be a sea change in many respects," said Gov. Phil Scott, expressing surprise at the degree of churn. Scott, one of just two statewide officeholders to announce reelection bids, said the collective knowledge of the departing legislators will be missed.

One of the committee chairs valued for deep experience in state government is Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), who leads the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means.

"I always said that once people refer to me as an institution, it was time to leave," Ancel quipped.

Ancel served as both legal counsel and tax commissioner under governor Howard Dean before being elected to the House in 2005. She had planned to retire two years ago but changed her mind as the state went into lockdown and people and businesses were panicking over their personal and economic futures.

"It just didn't seem like a good time to step away," Ancel said.

So she ran again and won easily. She has slogged through legislating by Zoom and the seemingly endless additional meetings that COVID-19 necessitated.

"I think the pandemic prompted a lot of us to stay," Ancel said, "and I think the pandemic has worn a lot of us out."

The attrition is particularly high in the four "money committees," the two panels in each chamber that control taxes and spending. They labored under extreme pressure to work with the administration to get financial assistance to Vermonters pummeled by the pandemic.

"Every committee has had a rough go of it, but the departures in the money committees really speak to the intensity of the last two years," said Jim Dandeneau, the new interim executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier), chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, is retiring, citing the workload of preparing the largest budget in state history — $8.3 billion. Six others on her 11-member committee are not running again, meaning that nearly two-thirds of a committee with deep knowledge of one of the legislature's most important oversight functions are calling it quits.

Other House leaders who are packing it in include Agriculture and Forestry chair Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham); Judiciary chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown); Government Operations chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), who is running for secretary of state; Health Care chair Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg); Education chair Kate Webb, (D-Shelburne); Human Services chair Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington); and Energy and Technology chair Tim Briglin (D-Thetford).

Briglin's committee took the lead in drafting the clean heat standard bill, a Democratic priority, and many assume he is stepping down in frustration over the House's failure to override Scott's veto of it. But Briglin said he actually made his decision last summer so he can focus on his investment firm, Tuckerman Capital.

"At the moment, my 'day job' requires more attention than I can possibly give it while also serving my constituents and chairing a House committee," Briglin, 56, who was first elected in 2014, wrote in an email.

Some say the infusion of new blood into an aging institution is vital. "We should be taking our turns, not hogging the seat," said Rep. Barbara Murphy (I-Fairfax), who is retiring after four terms.

The challenges of serving in the part-time legislature are well known: low pay, an uneven schedule, lack of childcare and the expectation of helping constituents year-round.

Lawmakers earn $774 weekly during the legislative session, with no health care benefits. The session typically runs 18 weeks, from January to May, for an annual base pay of around $13,932. Legislators are also eligible for payments to cover the cost of housing in Montpelier, food and mileage. When working remotely, lawmakers were paid $75 per day for expenses.

Like Briglin, Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) is not running again — in part, he said, because he needs to focus on his business and young family. Pearson, 49, owns a small consulting firm, and he needs to build his client base to increase his income, he said.

His wife is a teacher, and they have two daughters. The time commitment and low pay convinced him to make a change. "It's just not sustainable," Pearson said.

Sen. Joshua Terenzini (R-Rutland), a 35-year-old father of four, is also stepping down partly because of family obligations.

The exodus of younger lawmakers with children has again highlighted an imbalance in a legislature packed with retirees who have the time and means to serve. A 2015 study pegged Vermont's average lawmaker age, then 61, as the nation's fourth oldest.

Parent, 31, the youngest senator, worries what could happen if people like him couldn't serve. Those in their thirties and forties are typically focused on building careers, coaching little league and getting involved in their communities, and it's crucial that their voices are heard in Montpelier, he said.

"It's representation that's needed, but we're missing out on them," Parent said.

Policy debates on tax breaks for retired veterans or working families, or whether to provide help with childcare expenses, can all hinge on whether lawmakers face such challenges, he said.

Raising salaries has been floated before. But it's a "third rail" that doesn't sit well with voters, who fail to realize that many lawmakers make less than minimum wage when all aspects of their work are considered, Parent said.

Scheduling changes to limit floor votes and allow more remote work could help, he suggested; so could holding half the session in the winter and half in the fall. He noted that Texas gets by with legislative sessions every other year.

Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) agrees that more flexible schedules could help, but she thinks better compensation is crucial. Next year, she plans to push for increased pay, health care benefits and bolstering legislators' professional staff.

Hardy, 52, has three kids — two will be in college this fall, and a third is in high school — and she works as a substitute teacher to make ends meet. She's lucky to have a spouse with a full-time job with benefits. She said the package paid to Vermont's lawmakers is paltry compared to that of other states.

She served on a highly technical task force on pupil weighting last year. It took up the better part of six months, and she and her colleagues were paid $112 for each of 12 meetings.

"If we want to have a diverse legislature that is filled with more than just retirees with money, we need to be able to provide more support and pay," she said.

One of the youngest House members, 26-year-old Lucy Rogers (D-Waterville), echoed concerns about workload and low pay when she announced her decision on Monday not to run again.

"No matter how strong the passion for service, this makes the legislature inaccessible to many Vermonters who are not retired or independently wealthy," she wrote to supporters.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) said she plans to ask the Rules Committee to spend some time this summer exploring ideas for improving the legislature's working conditions.

Political parties drill into their members the need to help recruit their replacements, but challenges such as lack of childcare often prove insurmountable, Dandeneau of the Vermont Democratic Party said.

"We are keeping people wholesale out of public office," he said.

Paul Dame, chair of the Vermont Republican Party, is beating the bushes hard for candidates this year. He has the added challenge of finding candidates who are willing to serve in the minority. The high turnover nevertheless poses an opportunity, and Dame is hopeful that the party will pick up seats.

"One of the hardest things to do in Vermont is to unseat an incumbent; it doesn't matter what party," Dame said.

Two attempts by Democrats to override Republican Scott's vetoes this year failed by a single vote in the House. Democrats, independents and Progressives controlled 104 of the chamber's 150 seats but couldn't muster the two-thirds majority needed to thwart vetoes of Burlington's "just cause" eviction measure or the establishment of a statewide clean-heat standard. That's been a recruiting point for the GOP, Dame said.

It's also inspired Democrats to step forward to finish the work started by retiring legislators. Former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe, who is running to represent Norwich in the House, and former state economic development director Jarod Duval, running for Senate in Washington County, are both stressing urgent climate goals.

Speculating whether Democrats will be able to expand their majority this fall is premature because far different dynamics will be at play than in 2020, Krowinski said.

While there's no presidential election, voters will have the chance to enshrine reproductive rights into the state constitution by passing Proposition 5 this November. That'll likely drive voter turnout, and Krowinski is betting that voters who support Prop 5 will also support House Democratic candidates and strengthen their majority.

"I think it's a loss to our institution," Krowinski said of the retirements, "and also an opportunity to give the next generation of leaders a chance to govern."

House Retirements

Janet Ancel (D-Calais)

John Arrison (D-Weathersfield)

Thomas Bock (D-Chester)

Tim Briglin (D-Thetford)

Selene Colburn (P-Burlington)

Hal Colston (D-Winooski)

Larry Cupoli (R-Rutland)

Peter Fagan (R-Rutland)

Martha "Marty" Feltus (R-Lyndon)

John Gannon (D-Wilmington)

Maxine Grad (D-Moretown)

Bob Helm (R-Fair Haven)

Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier),

Kimberly Jessup (D-Middlesex)

John Killacky (D-South Burlington)

Warren Kitzmiller (D-Montpelier)

Paul Lefebvre (I-Island Pond)

Felisha Leffler (R-Enosburg Falls)

Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg)

Marcia Martel (R-Waterford)

Jim McCullough (D-Williston)

Barbara Murphy (I-Fairfax)

Terry Norris (I-Shoreham)

Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham)

Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington)

Lucy Rogers (D-Waterville)

Carl Rosenquist (R-Georgia)

Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe)

Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Dorset)

Harvey Smith (R-New Haven)

George Till (D-Jericho)

Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington)

Tommy Walz (D-Barre City)

Kate Webb (D-Shelburne)

Dave Yacovone (D-Morrisville)

House members seeking higher office

Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), running for secretary of state

Leland Morgan (R-West Milton), running for Senate in Franklin County

Robert Norris (R-Sheldon), running for Senate in Franklin County

Charlie Kimbell (D-Woodstock), running for lieutenant governor

Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D-Essex), running for Senate in Chittenden County

Becca White (D-Hartford), running for Senate in Windsor County

Senate Retirements

Cheryl Hooker (D/P-Rutland)

Corey Parent (R-Franklin)

Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) 

Alice Nitka (D-Windsor)

Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington)

Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) 

Joshua Terenzini (R-Rutland)

Jeanette White (D-Windham)

Senators seeking higher office

Becca Balint (D-Windham),running for U.S. Congress

Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), running for lieutenant governor

Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden), running for U.S. Congress

List as of May 24.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Feeling the Burnout"