Politics ain’t no game, but it comes with its fair share of winners and losers. Each Friday on Seven Days’ news and politics blog, Off Message, we try our darnedest to figure out which one’s which. We call it The Scoreboard.
It’s hardly a scientific process, but our goal each week is to provide a handy cheat sheet for those who don’t spend the day monitoring #vtpoli on Twitter or hitting the “refresh” button on our homepage.
Since this year’s legislative session is wrapping up as Seven Days goes to press, we thought it would be a good time to rate the past four months of Statehouse action.
So here you have it: the summary Scoreboard for the 2013 legislative session.
Corporate lobbyists — Some of the things legislators considered taxing this session? Meals, clothing, soda, bottled water, candy, cigarettes, vending machines, cloud-based software, satellite television and more. For each of these, a nervous lobbyist — or five — could be seen pacing the Statehouse halls, trying to keep his or her clients out of the crosshairs of the legislature’s tax-writing committees. In the end, nearly all were spared — thanks, in part, to the loyal assistance of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who went to bat for businesses big and small.
Liberal social issues — In yet another tight budget year, liberals’ greatest victories came from legislation that didn’t cost a dime. Namely, three contentious social and legal issues that have been debated in the Statehouse for years: decriminalizing marijuana, granting driver’s licenses to noncitizens and letting terminally ill Vermonters end their own lives.
Peter Shumlin — Two weeks ago, the gov wasn’t on our winner’s list. Early in the session, the legislature rebuffed his top legislative priority — a request for $17 million in new childcare subsidies — because lawmakers disagreed with his plan to pay for it by cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit. But Shummy’s a strong closer. He cut a session-ending deal with legislative leaders to avoid new general fund taxes and held off a last-minute effort to make the tax code more progressive. Which he apparently opposes.
Big Wind — Opponents of ridgeline wind got off to a promising start this year when the Senate seemed ready to enact a three-year moratorium on industrial wind power projects. But a strong and successful lobbying effort by a coalition of business and environmental groups took the wind out of their sails, whittling the moratorium down to a nearly unrecognizable study.
John Campbell — He’s still no LBJ, but Vermont’s Senate president pro tem earned an A for effort this year for (mostly) keeping his unruly chamber on time and in good working order. That’s a big change from last session, when the Windsor County senator nearly lost his job over complaints that he was disorganized and ineffectual. What changed? New committee chairs, a new majority leader (Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth) and, perhaps most importantly, newly hired chief of staff Rebecca Ramos, who earned accolades for keeping the boss in line and mostly on-message.
VTDigger.org — This was the session Vermont’s three-and-a-half-year-old online news outlet came into its own. With four full-time reporters — plus a semiretired columnist — stalking Statehouse committee rooms, little happened under the dome that didn’t receive exhaustive coverage by the nonprofit news org. While its jargon-laced copy remains a little too dense for the general reader, Digger is ably making up for dwindling print media coverage of the Statehouse.
Labor — Vermont’s labor movement failed to unionize childcare workers and deputy state’s attorneys this session, but it won two huge fights: Nonunion state workers and teachers will have to contribute to the cost of collective bargaining, and home health care workers now have the right to unionize, potentially creating the state’s largest collective bargaining unit.
Shap Smith — The House Speaker from Morrisville retained his iron grip on his Democratic super-majority — and, early in the session, used it effectively to counter Shumlin’s regressive tax proposals. Political observers noted that he was finally emerging from Shumlin’s long shadow and positioning himself for a future statewide electoral bid. That changed in the closing weeks of the session, when he appeared to bend to Shumlin’s will and sided with the governor on tax policy over his own Ways and Means Committee chairwoman.
Low-income Vermonters — In the end, Shumlin failed to fund his budget priorities by slashing Earned Income Tax Credit payments to low-income workers. And he achieved only middling results in capping eligibility to the Reach Up welfare program. But a defining element of this year’s session was a shift from “How can we help low-income Vermonters?” to “How much should we screw them over?”
Democracy — After a conservative super PAC spent more than $1 million in last fall’s election, lawmakers pledged this year to finally — finally! — reform the state’s campaign finance laws. They started out strong, but every week the bill became weaker, as legislators resisted subjecting themselves to tough new rules. By the time the bill missed its end-of-session deadline Tuesday, it likely would’ve increased the amount of money in Vermont politics — without doing much to increase transparency. In the end, no bill might’ve been better than a bad bill.
Democratic unity — After eight years of Republican gubernatorial rule and his competent response to Tropical Storm Irene, Shumlin felt the Democratic legislature’s love during his freshman term. But relations turned frosty this year, when Shumlin’s fiscal centrism and Republican-lite rhetoric bumped up against the liberal Democratic mind-meld. The new regime harkens back to the ’90s, when former governor Howard Dean liked to tell legislators they were in “la-la land.”
Republicans — Despite the Democratic discord, Republican legislators failed to articulate a credible and coherent alternative message. Thanks to their bumbling leadership in the House and lack of unity in the Senate, the legislature’s Republicans proved themselves as irrelevant as their diminishing numbers would suggest.
Gun control — Remember Sandy Hook? Vermont lawmakers sure don’t. After returning in January with tepid pledges to enact some sort of gun-law reforms, Vermont legislators quickly abandoned the notion. Shumlin’s utter refusal to consider new state gun laws didn’t help the case.
Peter Galbraith — Fairly or not, the Windham County Democrat distinguished himself this session as the Senate’s most reviled member. His tendency to amend every bill, debate every motion and stick it to his colleagues left him the odd man out on a couple of 29-1 votes. Ultimately, his outspoken advocacy for strong campaign-finance reforms actually hurt his own cause, as his colleagues were looking for reasons to vote against him.
The environment — A pair of studies released at the start of the session called for significant new investment to clean up the state’s waterways and weatherize homes. But even a cameo appearance in the House chamber by climate rock star Bill McKibben failed to move lawmakers to fund those programs or provide more than a pittance to the Clean Energy Development Fund. And after the House passed legislation to limit lakeshore development, the Senate shot it down.