Endgame Fail: Legislative Leaders Are the Big Losers of the Session | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Endgame Fail: Legislative Leaders Are the Big Losers of the Session


Published May 29, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 4, 2019 at 8:17 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
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Well, that was one for the history books.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who's seen plenty in his 26 years in the Vermont Senate.

"It" is the endgame of the 2019 legislative session, in which the House and Senate failed to pass their two top priorities, a paid family leave program and a $15 per hour minimum wage. The House voted to adjourn last Friday, as Senate leaders begged them to come back to the table.

But there will be no dramatic return. The Senate scheduled a final session for Wednesday afternoon to give House leaders time to change their minds, but that's not going to happen.

This abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion leaves quite a bit of political and reputational damage. Here's a list of winners and losers from the 2019 session.

Losers: Democratic officeholders and the Vermont Democratic Party

They prioritized three issues in the 2018 campaign: paid leave, minimum wage and climate change. They won big majorities in the House and Senate, which raised expectations among voters and activists. And then lawmakers failed to deliver on the first two and took only modest action on the third. Plus, the effort to create a legal marketplace for cannabis was pulled from the table by House leadership in mid-May.

There were plenty of successes, including a funding plan for waterways cleanup, strong abortion rights protections, a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases, a lead-testing program for drinking water at schools and childcare facilities, a ban on single-use plastics, and more funding for childcare assistance, rural broadband and residential weatherization.

But Democrats had made their appeal to voters on the issues that failed, and that's gonna leave a mark. There are signs of discontent in party ranks, and left-wing candidates may be emboldened to challenge incumbents who contributed to the failures.

Losers: House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden)

Leaders get the credit for success; they own the blame for failure. The policy differences between the two chambers were real but not insurmountable. From this vantage point, it looks like pride, personality differences and stresses in House-Senate relations were the bigger problem. Leadership's challenge is to keep those factors under control and get stuff done.

As noted above, this session was not short on accomplishments. But at the critical moment, Johnson and Ashe didn't shelve their differences and make the best deal they could.

The two chambers are different animals, and there are always disagreements between them. But the endgame drama revealed the shortcomings of the two leaders.

Johnson is a great conciliator and builder of consensus, which contributed to the early successes of this session. But she's proven ineffective at cracking the whip. There are times when a leader has to be forceful; by all appearances, Johnson simply isn't wired that way.

Ashe, on the other hand, has a reputation for being arrogant and tough to deal with. That reinforces the Senate's own superiority complex. Senators regularly get on the nerves of representatives over slights perceived or actual. Ashe is more of the same. He loves the Senate and he's fostered unity by making common cause with the old lions of the chamber. That contributes to lawmaking successes within the Senate but does little to improve relations with the House.

The two leaders face the daunting task of repairing House-Senate relations and preparing for a better session in 2020, when the election-year stakes will be higher. They will have to set the table for Democratic and Progressive campaigns next fall. They'll have to do a lot better to fulfill their charge.

Winner: Gov. Phil Scott

Thanks to legislative inaction, the Republican governor gets away without having to take a stand on three of the most fraught issues of the session: minimum wage, paid leave, and the establishment of a tax-and-regulate system for cannabis.

Extra added bonus: The House adjourned without scheduling the customary veto session, which allows lawmakers to return to Montpelier to attempt to override a veto. Now they can't come back until January, unless Scott calls them back himself, which he would only do if he vetoed the budget or tax bills.

Legislative leaders have promised to pursue the big three issues next year. But in the meantime, Scott can skate. "He played it very smart this year," said Sears. "Remember, last year the battle was Tim and Mitzi [against] the governor. This year, it was between Tim and Mitzi."

Funny thing. In his first term, Scott took a much more confrontational stance with the legislature. He introduced sweeping reforms very late in the 2017 and 2018 sessions. He vetoed three budgets in two years. This year, taking the softer approach, he may have been more successful. Lawmakers spent much of the session essentially negotiating against themselves as they tried to guess the governor's intentions.

The dominant story line of House-Senate dysfunction also obscures the widespread, tri-partisan dissatisfaction with Scott's disengagement. Last week at a House Republican caucus, Rep. Topper McFaun (R-Barre Town) asked leadership about the governor's stance on a particular bill. Minority leader Pattie McCoy's (R-Poultney) answer: "We don't know."

"Unbelievable," McFaun responded.

Democratic leaders claimed that Scott's opacity contributed to their endgame collapse. It may well be true. Scott's session-long effort to be more open and communicative abruptly ended when the calendar turned to May. But for the most part, the complaints will be written off as a loser's attempt to shift blame. The governor's Teflon remains intact, at least for now.

Winner: Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman

He steadfastly refuses to answer questions about his political ambitions, but he's universally seen as a future candidate for governor — possibly as soon as 2020. As the leading Progressive figure in Vermont, he can distance himself from the Democratic Party and its legislative caucuses. In fact, he's a staunch advocate for the three issues at the center of the Dems' failures. If there's a revolt in the Dem/Prog ranks, he's the natural leader.

It's reasonable to say — as of right now — that Zuckerman is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. His biggest potential primary rival, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, isn't tied to the legislature, but he is a prominent and loyal Democrat. He wouldn't be nearly as free as Zuckerman to campaign against the party or clearly separate himself from its agenda.

Losers: Republican lawmakers

It was kind of a sad session for House and Senate Republicans, whose diminished numbers — a combined 49 out of 180 members of the two chambers — left them with precious little authority. What power they had was at the sufferance of Democratic leaders. And, as we have seen above, they didn't get much out of their Republican governor, either.

They soldiered bravely on, but it's gotta wear 'em down. The 2020 election, with President Donald Trump on the ballot, looks like another bad year for the VTGOP. The party shows no sign of getting its act together on fundraising and candidate recruitment, major failings in 2018.

And at the end of the House Republican caucus last week, a lot of representatives had trouble simply getting out of their chairs and walking across the room. Their dedication to service is laudable. But how long are they going to hang on, especially in a potential Democratic wave year? And where are the young Republicans waiting to replace them? There are a few, but that's all.

Winners/Losers: Environmental advocates

They got several things on their wish lists: weatherization, the plastic bag ban, regulation of the PFAS family of chemicals (notorious for tainting water supplies in the Bennington area), polluter-pay medical monitoring for those exposed to toxic substances, and tougher regulation of toxics in children's products.

And now come a couple of big "buts."

They got very little on climate change. A coalition of 23 advocacy groups joined forces behind a deliberately modest climate agenda for 2019, with six items thought to be achievable. They got part of what they wanted on weatherization, and not much more. House leadership didn't even make climate change one of its top priorities for the session — after many Democratic candidates emphasized the issue in their campaigns last year.

And many of their victories may be negated by gubernatorial vetoes. Medical monitoring and children's toxics bills were vetoed last year. The business community is pushing hard for the governor to draw a line on these environmental measures. And the next opportunity to override vetoes has been delayed until next year.

Media Notes

Trent Campbell has had a downright awful time these past eight months. As in, "straight from the Book of Job"-type awful. The longtime staff photographer for the Addison County Independent has been out of work since October due to a series of strokes and other illnesses. He's been yo-yoing from home to hospital to inpatient rehab and back.

He's still in rehab as we speak, and the physical, emotional and financial stress has been immense. His wife, schoolteacher Nikki Juvan, has missed many weeks of work as she has kept up with his care. Insurance has covered the basics, but expenses mounted as paychecks were missed.

There's also been a groundswell of concern among Indy readers. That may seem surprising, but as Juvan explained, "Every big event in town, Trent has always been there with his camera. People have noticed his absence."

The queries sparked the paper to address the question on May 23 with a story by reporter John Flowers and a first-person account by Campbell himself. A few days earlier, publisher Angelo Lynn suggested a GoFundMe page to help pay the costs of Campbell's care and recuperation.

"I'd never done anything like this before," said Juvan. But the response was heartening. In the first week, donors pledged more than $14,000 toward a goal of $25,000. (You can find the page here: gofundme.com/trent-campbell-stroke-recovery-fund.)

Campbell continues his recovery. "He's working so hard," Juvan said. "He's determined to get back to regular life." The strokes have left him with balance issues and some left-side weakness.

The other good news is, Campbell's doctors believe they've figured out the cause of the strokes: atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to strokes, blood clots and cardiac complications. The AFib is now under control with medication.

"For whatever reason, he's still here," said Juvan. "He can inspire people through his photography and his story."

To judge by the initial GoFundMe returns, I'd say he's already done so.

I must note the connection between this story and the legislature's endgame. Campbell and Juvan are perfect examples of the need for paid leave. If they'd been able to take 12 weeks off work with pay, their burden would have been greatly eased. Maybe they wouldn't have had to resort to GoFundMe at all. Lawmakers can blithely wait until January to try again, but in the meantime a lot of people are suffering. GoFundMe can't be a reliable substitute for a universal program.

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.