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Means to Amend: Senate Seeks to Enshrine Abortion Rights in Vermont Constitution

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Becca Balint - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Becca Balint

By all rights, Thursday should be a day of high drama in the Vermont Statehouse. The Senate is scheduled to debate a state constitutional amendment that would "ensure that every Vermonter is afforded personal reproductive liberty" and states that reproductive rights "shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling State interest..."

But all signs point to easy passage for the amendment known as Proposition 5, despite the fact that a two-thirds margin is required.

"We feel strong and confident," said Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham), whose Democratic and Progressive caucus includes 24 of the Senate's 30 members. "The caucus is in favor of Proposition 5. That's been true for several weeks."

Leadership has been dutifully courting potential swing votes, including those of Sens. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) and Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), who are publicly undecided. If the Senate's six Republicans voted as a bloc and a few Democrats joined them, the amendment would fail to reach the necessary 20 votes. But Balint expects to hold the centrists — most of 'em anyway — and pick up at least a couple of Republicans. She thinks she can get 23 votes.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) concurs with Balint's assessment. "There will be members [of the Republican caucus] voting in both directions," Benning said. He confirmed that he would be one of those voting for Prop 5. Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille) voted for it in committee and is expected to do the same on the floor.

Those opposed to the amendment are waving the white flag. "We don't expect any robust discussion in the Senate," said Mary Beerworth, executive director of the Vermont Right to Life Committee. "I think we have to let this ship sail."

That's something of a surprise. Vermont's amendment process is long and convoluted, but the first Senate vote is the only one that requires a two-thirds margin. All subsequent votes need only majority support.

In February, Beerworth's allies waged a spirited battle to defeat H.57, a bill to protect abortion rights in state law. (Since the constitutional amendment process would take at least four years, supporters also want to enact the House bill as a placeholder.) Pro-life forces didn't change many minds. The bill was approved by the full House on a 106-37 vote and now awaits action in the Senate.

Abortion opponents have been largely absent in the Prop 5 process. "It's been crickets," Balint said. "Tactically, the best approach is to pick off a few senators. I'm not wishing that would happen, but it's been a surprise to me. We were expecting an onslaught."

Benning concurs. "I've gotten a couple of emails, but it's definitely quieter than I thought it would be," he said.

At this point, Balint's biggest worry is attendance. "We have to be sure we have everyone in their seats," she said. "It's not two-thirds of those present; it's two-thirds of the entire Senate."

To become part of the state Constitution, an amendment must be considered in two separate biennia. If Prop 5 is approved by the Senate (two-thirds vote) and the House (simple majority), it would be shelved until 2021, when both chambers would again have to vote on it — with simple majorities needed to pass. If that happened, the measure would go to a statewide referendum in November 2022.

One other point: Once the Senate signs off on amendment Thursday, it can't be changed at any point in the process. The wording is set in stone.

With little chance of blocking the amendment in the legislature, Beerworth is looking ahead to a potential referendum campaign in 2022. Defeat would still be a long-shot in a pro-choice state, and Beerworth claims the amendment's wording is meant to hamstring her cause. "They ought to use the word 'abortion,'" she said. "The proposition refers to 'reproductive rights.' It would be more honest to say 'abortion' in the language of the amendment."

The process of amending Vermont's Constitution is lengthy and arduous. But Prop 5 is off to a strong start. If it's approved on Thursday, its eventual adoption appears to be a simple matter of time.

Climate Unchanged

Just about everyone in the Statehouse acknowledges that the planet faces a climate catastrophe if we don't take immediate action.

But as for actual results, "We've taken a couple of baby steps in the right direction," said Rep. Mike McCarthy (D-St. Albans).

Environmental advocates had high hopes in January. The 2018 election was a big win for Democrats, while Republican scare tactics about a potential carbon tax had no visible impact on the results.

"We thought the election gave real momentum to climate issues," said Vermont Conservation Voters executive director Lauren Hierl. Her group was one of 25 advocacy organizations that sought to capitalize on the momentum by unrolling a climate plan in January that was designed to be politically acceptable.

Eh, not so much. Of the six action items in the plan, the House has delivered partial successes on two — the "baby steps" referenced by McCarthy: a modest incentive program for electric vehicle purchases and a 2-cent increase in the heating fuel tax to pay for weatherizing Vermont homes.

The electric vehicle plan would provide $1.5 million in incentives, enough to get several hundred EVs on the road. Problem is, Vermont needs to expand its electric fleet by roughly 8,000 per year to meet its 2025 goal of 50,000 electrics on the road. The House approved the fuel tax increase after two days of intense debate, but Gov. Phil Scott has strongly hinted at a veto. The advocacy groups' climate plan called for twice as much funding for weatherization.

Advocates expected Scott to be an obstacle. They hoped for better from the Dem/Prog supermajorities in the legislature. But while Republicans' "carbon tax" rhetoric didn't prevent a Democratic win at the polls, it has made majority lawmakers leery of anything that might be so labeled. That dynamic was seen on the House floor last week, when the Republicans sought to slap the "carbon tax" label on the fuel tax bill.

Vermont is far behind on all its goals for transportation, greenhouse gas emissions and conversion to renewable energy. The measures advancing in the House would help, but not nearly enough to get us back on track.

A deep-seated cognitive dissonance appears to be at work. Everyone realizes the urgency of the situation, but all they can produce is incremental steps. It's as if your house were on fire, and the fire department pulled up with lights flashing and sirens blazing, handed you a bucket of water, and drove away.

"I hear a lot of 'I'm with you, but,'" said Johanna Miller, energy and climate program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "I'm starting to really hate the word 'but.'"

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) is a bit miffed by the criticism. "I know they want more, but they haven't been able to deliver legislation that a majority of the [House] can support," Johnson said. "The general goal is easy to agree on. The difficulty is how we get there."

Advocates might respond that it's not their job to cobble together a majority. They point to a March 14 press release from House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski touting a five-point Democratic agenda for this year. It included paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage, broadband access, affordable childcare and a "clean water economy." No mention of climate change.

Johnson has an explanation. "The five points came with the work we did at the start of the session," she said. "We surveyed the caucus: 'What are the most important things your community wants to act on?' Climate change didn't make it onto the list."

OK, so the cognitive dissonance is caucus-wide. Some might call this an opportunity for leadership. "Right now, the energy to do something about climate is diffuse," said McCarthy. "We're moving in the right direction, but there are no transformative policies."

Rep. Selene Colburn (P/D-Burlington) cast the only vote against next year's budget, which passed the House by a 139-1 margin. She did so out of concern over the lack of climate progress. "In recent years, the warm embrace of austerity budgeting makes it hard to have a conversation about raising necessary revenue," Colburn said. She noted that the "fragmented" nature of the budget process — taxes, spending and capital expenditure move on separate tracks — "makes it hard to have a conversation about what we're willing to invest in."

It's also true that Vermont hasn't felt the harsh impact of global warming. "I have family in Central America and California who've been affected by natural disasters," said Sierra Wennberg-Smith, a senior at Harwood Union High School and a member of the Youth Lobby, a student organization advocating for climate action. "We don't see it in Vermont so much."

Members of the Youth Lobby feel a sense of urgency because they will live through the consequences of global warming. "It's something I think about almost every day," said 16-year-old Carson Shea.

The problem is, legislatures don't do urgent. "This place is designed to move slowly," said McCarthy.

But climate change doesn't play by legislative rules. Last October, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the world has 12 years to prevent climate catastrophe. You'd think that might have focused the legislature's attention. But judging by that House survey, lawmakers haven't yet come to grips with the stark realities of climate change.

Media Notes

After two and a half years covering Burlington City Hall, Katie Jickling is leaving the Seven Days news team. She's taking a position with Anew Place, a homeless/transition shelter in the city. Jickling's last day is Tuesday, April 9.

Her replacement will be Courtney Lamdin, who's on the move for the second time this year. Lamdin had won awards and much respect for her work as executive editor of the Milton Independent, Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun, but when the papers were sold late last year, her position was eliminated and she was offered a lesser post. She declined and was almost immediately snapped up by the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus to be its news editor.

And now she's leaving. Why?

"I wasn't looking for a new position. I've been very happy at the Times Argus," Lamdin said. Seven Days approached her with an offer, giving her an "excruciating choice," she said. The deciding factor: the chance to get back to writing and reporting, which have always been her passion.

"We've been impressed by Courtney for a long time," said Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.

Routly noted that on Monday, the national trade publication Editor & Publisher included Lamdin in its "25 Under 35" list of next-generation newspaper leaders, an impressive feat for a small-town journalist. Lamdin's first day on the new job is April 15.

Correction, April 5, 2019: An earlier version of this column misidentified the author of a press release from House Democratic leadership. The release was sent by Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).

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