Report Card: Studied to Death by the Vermont Legislature | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Report Card: Studied to Death by the Vermont Legislature

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TIM NEWCOMB
  • tim newcomb

The Vermont legislature rejected Gov. Phil Scott's plan to merge the liquor department and lottery commission earlier this year, opting instead to study the matter. Rather than raise the minimum wage, it created a study committee. An attempt to regulate tile drains — underground irrigation pipes that can be a conduit for pollution — also turned into a study.

And that's just scratching the surface. According to a Seven Days analysis, lawmakers ordered up 68 reports and studies during the recently concluded legislative session. That has some wondering whether it's time — and money — well spent.

(Explore a searchable table of all reports and studies at the bottom of this story)

"I find it very frustrating that any time there's an issue that can't get resolved, the solution always seemed to be a study or some other term for the same thing," said House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton).

Lawmakers acknowledge their penchant for commissioning reports, which can be a compromise between doing something and doing nothing — a way to appease advocates for a particular cause without angering opponents.

The problem, critics say, is that too often these special reports serve no practical purpose.

"Frankly, people joke, 'Are any of these reports read?'" said Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Sometimes a study comes back to you, and you scratch your head and say, 'Why did we ask for this?'" admitted Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers say they have tried to reduce the number of summer studies, but still the stack grows higher.

No comprehensive record exists, so Seven Days created one by searching the 99 bills that passed both chambers this year for such terms as "study," "report," "working group," "task force," "commission" and "council." We excluded any straightforward requests for specific information that could be delivered verbally or as part of an already-established report. When the legislature created a committee and then assigned it a report, we counted that just once.

So what were lawmakers eager to explore? The 68 commissioned reports focused on such topics as Airbnb, health information technology, suicide, sexual assault evidence kits, impartial policing, independent schools, workers' compensation and waterway cleanup.

The 2018 state budget alone calls for 17 new reports; an economic development bill contains nine; and a measure "relating to insurance and securities" includes five.

Most commonly, the legislature orders state agencies to create the reports. In other cases, lawmakers carry out studies themselves as part of temporary summer committees, or they delegate the job to a group of stakeholders. On occasion, the legislature creates permanent commissions, whose responsibilities inevitably include annual reports.

Seven Days' list does not include the many recurring studies and existing commissions that predate the 2017 session. According to the governor's office, Vermont has accumulated more than 180 permanent commissions, which range from highly active ones, such as the State Board of Education, to the obscure, such as the Vermont Racing Commission — established in 1959 to regulate horse-race gambling.

Of course, some studies generate important results. Many of the state's landmark laws were preceded by studies, including same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, universal prekindergarten and paid sick leave. Rep. David Deen (D-Westminster) argues that study committees and the reports they produce are especially important for a part-time legislature with limited professional staff.

"Because we are a citizens' legislature, there are issues that come to us that we have never thought about in our entire lives," Deen said. "We need a mechanism to be able to look at issues in depth."

Rep. Oliver Olsen (I-Londonderry) agrees. "I actually see a lot of value in study committees," he said, suggesting that the "more relaxed, focused environment" makes them more productive. "These committees are working without the distractions that we typically see in the legislative session ... You don't have all the hustle and bustle. You don't have lobbyists coming in and out of the committees."

From her perch as Appropriations chair, Kitchel acts as a sort of study gatekeeper. She also defends them. "I know studies are often code for 'delay.' Sometimes they are, in fact ... gathering information and data necessary to make informed decisions," she said.

Sears sees value in a task force his committee created this year to address complaints about the state's alimony laws, which haven't been updated in decades. Composed of lawyers, judges, alimony payers and recipients, the group is supposed to recommend changes to the statute. "To get them together would take an entire session," Sears said.

On the other hand, when asked about a report to determine whether the state should continue to require a front license plate on vehicles, he responded with sarcasm: "I think that's just a terribly important thing ... I hope it's exhaustive."

Some studies, Sears noted, "are really [just] kicking the can down the road." He suggested that the creation of a Mental Health Crisis Response Commission this year was merely a way to postpone difficult funding decisions.

Sometimes the process repeats itself. Last year, the legislature called on the state treasurer to identify funding sources to clean up the state's waterways. This year, lawmakers reviewed the report and then created a working group to recommend funding sources. There was little else to do in a political environment hostile to new taxes and fees. (The legislature also created a seven-member advisory council to oversee the new six-member water funding working group.)

Similarly, for three years in a row lawmakers have asked for reports on the difference in pay rates between hospital-affiliated doctors and independent ones. Still, they've gotten no closer to the goal of "pay parity."

"I quite honestly think we ask for way too many reports," said Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee.

"I think many of those reports go unread," Olsen observed. "Do I read every report that's been produced? No. It's just not practical."

If lawmakers have trouble reading the reports, how do the people producing them manage?

Summer study committees carry a known cost, in addition to legislative staff time. Lawmakers are paid a per diem rate of $141, plus mileage and food expenses, which average about $73 a day, according to a 2017 memo from the Joint Fiscal Office. The six lawmakers assigned to the minimum wage study committee will meet five times, costing roughly $6,420.

Occasionally, members of the public get paid for their participation — $50 a day, plus expenses — or the study group gets its own appropriation. In 2017, most study committees were asked to make do without additional pay.

State employees get assigned the most work by far. Sixty-four of the 68 reports require their participation, which adds to their regular duties.

Even so, current officials are loath to protest the workload.

The Department of Environmental Conservation, for example, picked up five new report assignments this session, according to Deputy Commissioner Rebecca Ellis. Adding in seven annual reports and one biennial one, the DEC will have 14 reports due in 2018 — a light load compared to the 33 it has to deliver this year.

"I actually think the legislature is pretty mindful of the demands they're putting on the agencies," said Ellis, who previously served in the House. "From my sense, they really don't request reports on a whim."

But, as Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) noted, "Nobody complains to us because we're the lawmakers."

Former officials tend to be more blunt. "They can direct us to do stuff, and sometimes they do it without regard to what our workflow is and what our capacity is," said Deb Markowitz, who led the Agency of Natural Resources under former governor Peter Shumlin. "It's very easy for a legislative committee to say, 'Oh, just do a study and report back to us.'"

Susan Bartlett, who served as a state senator before going to work in the governor's office and later in the Agency of Human Services, agreed. "They don't realize how much time and energy is required to do these reports," she said.

"We were just buried in them at times," recalled Doug Racine, who led the Agency of Human Services under Shumlin. "Oftentimes we were being asked to create data we didn't have ... and we didn't have the ability to [collect] with our IT system."

"The legislature has a right to ask for information. I would never quarrel with that," Racine said. But, he continued, "Can we look at these things once in a while and ask, 'Are they still adding value?'"

Lawmakers contend that they already do that — or at least try to.

Kitchel's panel reviews any report that comes with an explicit cost and has pushed to consolidate committees with similar missions. That appears to have cut down on legislative study committees.

Former senator Kevin Mullin, who resigned last week to join the Green Mountain Care Board, has noticed a difference. In past years, he said, "I would go up there [to the Statehouse] in the summertime, and half the legislature would be there."

This year, only nine of the new reports require lawmaker participation.

The House and Senate government operations committees also periodically try to weed out superfluous studies and commissions. But, said White, "It doesn't always happen, and sometimes it's very informal."

Once created, commissions are difficult to eliminate. White said her committee ran into resistance when it wanted to get rid of the Vermont Racing Commission. Betting on horse racing is illegal in Vermont, but the commission continues to this day with a three-member board chaired by Burlington businessman and political insider Harlan Sylvester.

White herself isn't immune to the temptation. "I'm going to try to talk Tim into letting [the Senate Government Operations Committee] meet five times this summer to talk about law enforcement," she noted, referring to Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). White acknowledged that her line of inquiry — how to address inconsistent police coverage across the state — has already been studied about a dozen times dating back to 1974.

"What's happened is that a report will be done, and you read the report and say, 'Oh, my God, this is going to make half the law enforcement in the state mad,'" White explained. This time, she pledged, "We're just going to tackle it even if we make people mad."

Studies and Reports Commissioned by the Vermont Legislature in 2017

Table includes reports and studies the Vermont commissioned in 2017 and notes what entity was assigned to comile each report. Gov. Phil Scott had yet to sign many of the bills as of May 30. The status of each, according to the Vermont Legislature's website, is noted after the name of the bill. Click the link next to each report to read the bill's text.

LegislationReport topicAssigned to:Read More
H.145: An act relating to establishing the Mental Health Crisis Response Commission (Signed)Progress on improving crisis interventionsMental Health Crisis Response Commission (newly created)
H.184: An act relating to evaluation of suicide profiles (Signed)Collection of suicide dataAgency of Human Services
H.238: An act relating to modernizing and reorganizing Title 7 (Not signed)Plan for merging Department of Liquor Control and Vermont Lottery CommissionDepartment of Liquor and Lottery Task Force (newly created)
H.308: An act relating to the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel (Not signed)Recommendations to address systemic implicit bias in criminal justice systemRacial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel (newly created)
H.308: An act relating to the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel (Not signed)Data collection and training on implicit biasCriminal Justice Training Council
H.347: An act relating to the State Telecommunications Plan (Signed)Participation in federal and state Lifeline programsDepartment for Children and Families
H.347: An act relating to the State Telecommunications Plan (Signed)Efforts made to increase participation in Lifeline programsDepartment for Children and Families
H.411: An act relating to miscellaneous energy issues (Signed)Progress update on establishing minimum efficiency standards for products sold or installed in VermontDepartment of Public Service
H.424: An act relating to the Commission on Act 250: the Next 50 Years (Signed)Assessment of Act 250Commission on Act 250 (newly created)
H.495: An act relating to miscellaneous agriculture subjects (Not signed)Recommendations on whether and how the state should collect information on tile drains on farms; recommendation on whether farms' nutrient management plans and data should be available to the publicAgency of Agriculture
H.502: An act relating to modernizing Vermont’s parentage laws (Signed)Ways to update Vermont's parentage laws to address issues including reproductive technologyParentage Study Committee (newly created)
H.503: An act relating to to criminal justice (Not signed)Options for improving pretrial communication between courts and criminal defendants to reduce failures to appear in courtCourt Administrator; Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs; Office of the Defender General, American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont
H.506: An act relating to professions and occupations regulated by the Office of Professional Regulation (Signed)Appraisal management company regulationDirector of the Office of Professional Regulation
H.507: An act relating to Next Generation Medicaid ACO pilot project reporting requirements (Signed)Updates on Medicaid Accountable Care Organization pilotDepartment of Vermont Health Access
H.507: An act relating to Next Generation Medicaid ACO pilot project reporting requirements (Signed)Updates on implementing all-payer health care systemGreen Mountain Care Board
H.508: An act relating to building resilience for individuals experiencing adverse childhood experiences (Signed)Analysis of existing resources to mitigate childhood trauma; recommendations for improvementAdverse Childhood Experiences Working Group (newly created)
H.509: An act relating to calculating statewide education tax rates (Not signed)Whether and how to establish a statewide health benefit plan for teachersVermont Educational Health Benefits Commission (newly created)
H.513: An act relating to making miscellaneous changes to education law (Signed)Recommendations on what requirements State Board of Education should impose on independent schoolsIndependent Schools Study Committee (newly created)
H.513: An act relating to making miscellaneous changes to education law (Signed)Use of $20,000 appropriation to Vermont State Colleges for education and skilled trade training programs Vermont State Colleges
H.513: An act relating to making miscellaneous changes to education law (Signed)How to weight the number of students in school districts for funding purposesAgency of Education
H.515: An act relating to executive branch and judiciary fees and food and lodging establishments (Not signed)Short-term rental industryShort-Term Rental Working Group (newly created)
H.516: An act relating to miscellaneous tax changes (Not signed)Review of state's health information technology funds and programsAgency of Administration and Agency of Human Services
H.516: An act relating to miscellaneous tax changes (Not signed)Recommendations to improve relationship between Department of Taxes and small businessesDepartment of Taxes, Small Business Taxpayer Outreach and Education Working Group (newly created)
H.516: An act relating to miscellaneous tax changes (Not signed)Recommendations for long-term funding to support clean water effortsWorking Group on Water Quality Funding (newly created)
H.516: An act relating to miscellaneous tax changes (Not signed)Ways to assist municipalities with litigation expenses stemming from property value disputesOffice of the Attorney General
H.516: An act relating to miscellaneous tax changes (Not signed)Reimbursement of education tax liabilities to municipalitiesDirector of Property Valuation and Review
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Progress update on seasonal warming shelters in Rutland and BarreDepartment for Children and Families
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Projected shelter availability for the 2017-2018 heating seasonAgency of Human Services
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Plan to save $5 million throughout state governmentAgency of Administration
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)New positions created to reduce usage of temp workers, overtime costs, etc.Department of Human Resources
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Creation of a new "classification and compensation system" for state workersDepartment of Human Resources
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Money spent/policy recommendations on prisoner transportsDepartment of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Any revenue increase from liquor sales between FY 2016 and FY 2017; expenses for new signs and displays for local liquor stores.Department of Liquor Control
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)How to define traumatic brain injuries in criminal defendants; appropriate treatment for those defendantsCommission on Offenders with Mental Illness
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Prioritization of AHS community grants and impacts of reducing grants Agency of Human Services
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Distribution of Choices for Care savingsDepartment of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Assessment of provider system for home- and community-based services and nursing home servicesDepartment of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Results of DCF pilot programs to improve service delivery Department for Children and Families
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Use of out-of-state and in-state residential placements, including Woodside Juvenile Detention CenterDepartment for Children and Families
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Plan to convert Southeast State Correctional Facility into reentry facilityDepartment of Corrections
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Changes made to ensure doctors are reimbursed equitably for providing medical servicesGreen Mountain Care Board
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Results of additional state funding for Vermont State Colleges Vermont State Colleges
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Money transferred to VSAC to support financially needy students Vermont Student Assistance Corporation
H.518: An act relating to making appropriations for the support of government (Not signed)Additional interim reports on already-required Clean Water Investment ReportAgency of Administration
H.519: An act relating to capital construction and state bonding (Not signed)A list of all clean water initiative programs and their fundingClean Water Fund Board
H.519: An act relating to capital construction and state bonding (Not signed)Creation of the new Agency of Digital Services Agency of Digital Services
H.519: An act relating to capital construction and state bonding (Not signed)Evaluation and recommendations on the use and condition of state mental health facilitiesAgency of Human Services
S.22: An act relating to eliminating penalties for possession of limited amounts of marijuana by adults 21 years of age and older (Vetoed)Proposed legislation to create a regulatory system for marijuanaMarijuana Regulatory Commission (newly created)
S.112: An act relating to creating the Spousal Support and Maintenance Task Force (Not signed)Ways to update the state's alimony lawsAlimony Reform Task Force (newly created)
S.127: An act relating to miscellaneous changes to laws related to vehicles and vessels (Not signed)Cost estimates of removing the requirement for front license platesDepartment of Motor Vehicles
S.134: An act relating to court diversion and pretrial services (Not signed)Public health approach to low-level drug crimesLegislative Council
S.134: An act relating to court diversion and pretrial services (Not signed)Proposal of legislation to encourage use of pretrial servicesOffice of the Attorney General; Office of the Defender General; Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs
S.135: An act relating to promoting economic development (Not signed)Methods for collecting aggregate information on wages and benefits for jobs created through the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive ProgramAgency of Commerce and Community Development
S.135: An act relating to promoting economic development (Not signed)Utilization of the Green Mountain Secure Retirement PlanGreen Mountain Secure Retirement Plan Board (newly created)
S.135: An act relating to promoting economic development (Not signed)Assessment of Vermont’s current workforce education and training program; recommendations for improvementDepartment of Labor; working group on state workforce development (newly created)
S.135: An act relating to promoting economic development (Not signed)Ways to increase employment in heating and fuel service industryDepartment of Labor and working group on state workforce development
S.135: An act relating to promoting economic development (Not signed)Minimum wage and benefits cliffLegislative study committee (newly created)
S.135: An act relating to promoting economic development (Not signed)Opportunities and risks associated with financial technologyCenter for Legal Innovation at Vermont Law School
S.135: An act relating to promoting economic development (Not signed)Results of state-led education and outreach about sewer and water service connection permittingSecretary of Natural Resources
S.135: An act relating to promoting economic development (Not signed)Tax increment financing districtsVermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office
S.16: An act relating to expanding patient access to the Medical Marijuana Registry (Not signed)Testing marijuana-infused productsAgency of Agriculture and Department of Public Safety
S.56: An act relating to insurance and securities (Not signed)Occupations with high risk of on-the-job injuries and high workers’ compensation costsDepartment of Financial Regulation
S.56: An act relating to insurance and securities (Not signed)Ways to encourage affordable workers' compensation policies for seasonal workersDepartment of Financial Regulation
S.56: An act relating to insurance and securities (Not signed)Ways to combine workers’ compensation insurance risk pools with nearby statesDepartment of Financial Regulation
S.56: An act relating to insurance and securities (Not signed)Potential savings from having Department of Financial Regulation run workers' compensation risk poolDepartment of Financial Regulation
S.56: An act relating to insurance and securities (Not signed)Costs of workers' compensation for emergency personnel with post-traumatic stress disorderDepartment of Labor
S.61: An act relating to offenders with mental illness, inmate records, and inmate services (Not signed)How best to provide mental health treatment to inmatesSecretary of Human Services
S.95: An act relating to sexual assault nurse examiners (Not signed)Issues with sexual assualt evidence kitsSexual Assault Evidence Kit Study Committee (newly created)

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