Editor’s note: Inside the Golden Bubble is an occasional column about the intersection between politics and policy at the Vermont Statehouse.
This is a complicated story to tell. It’s complicated because it features elements of intrigue, a lot of hubris, equal measures of political wiliness and naivete, and one of those pesky core value issues that has divided Vermont’s Grand Old Liberal Coalition of Democrats and Progressives in the Statehouse this year.
The issue in question is whether to put limits on Reach Up, the state’s welfare-to-work program. Gov. Peter Shumlin has proposed a three-year cap on benefits, with a total limit of five years for recipients. A number of prominent House Democrats hated the idea from the start, and perhaps no one has been more opposed to the cap than Rep. Ann Pugh, chair of the House Human Services Committee.
Pugh, a social work professional who teaches at UVM, has made her views known to her committee. She says the research shows caps can hurt single mothers who are following the welfare-to-work rules but who cannot find work, or cannot hold down a job for a variety of reasons, including psychological trauma caused by domestic abuse.
She was visibly disappointed last week when her committee approved a plan similar to that of the governor’s.
What followed, some lawmakers on the committee say, was a subversion of the committee process.
The committee process can seem like just another of those old-fashioned formalities inside the Golden Bubble, comparable to calling the names of representatives by hometown; the arcane polity on the floor torn from the pages of a 19th century legislative playbook; the requirement that members wear semi-formal attire in the House and Senate chambers (i.e. ties and jackets for the men; anything but jeans and T-shirts for the women).
The unspoken rules of the committee process that define the conduct of lawmakers is more than just another quirk of the Legislature, however. It’s a kind of social glue, and it serves as a framework for the flow of bills through the Statehouse that can prevent the abuse of power by individuals and parties. At bottom, it is a commitment by committee members and their leader — the chair — to work together in an atmosphere of fairness and trust, regardless of political views or affiliation.
Lawmakers in Human Services lost that trust late Tuesday afternoon when they realized that Pugh didn’t act in good faith on behalf of the majority of the committee.
When the House Appropriations Committee approved a plan to moderate a five-year cap on the state’s welfare-to-work program on Monday, lawmakers on the budget-writing committee were under the impression that the language they were voting on came from the Human Services Committee.
The trouble was, it didn’t.
That’s because the committee’s formally approved recommendation was never sent to Appropriations. Instead, another set of provisions were presented from an ad hoc subgroup as though they had come from Human Services.
The majority of House Human Services Committee members actually approved a very different recommendation on Friday that would have put a straight five-year limit on benefits for all Reach Up recipients. They voted twice on the proposal last week, and each time the committee split down the middle. The first time in a 7-4 vote; the second in a 6-5 vote on Friday.
In that last vote, four Republicans and two Democrats supported a five-year cap, and Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Democrat from Putney, changed his mind and went with the minority. He was joined by four other dissenting Democrats, including Pugh and vice chair, Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, and Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Chittenden.
The votes were the culmination of weeks of testimony and debate about the merits and drawbacks of different approaches to limits on the program that provides cash benefits to more than 6,000 needy families in Vermont and eligibility for a variety of other services including access to affordable housing and food stamps.
In the past, Human Services has issued a formal memorandum to House Appropriations with recommendations in response to a range of budget proposals from the governor’s office. This year the memo was sent in February with the caveat that the committee was still deliberating on Reach Up, along with mental health and substance abuse programs. Those recommendations, according to the memo, would be sent later.
On Friday lawmakers approved a recommendation for a five-year Reach Up cap. Committee members expected Pugh to send an addendum to the February memo formalizing the committee’s decision, along with draft language for the budget bill, to House Appropriations.
Pugh, however, said she never asked legislative council to send the Reach Up language the committee voted on to House Appropriations, nor did she put it in the form of a memo, because she said Rep. Anne O’Brien, from House Appropriations, was present during the vote on Friday.
“It was my mistake,” Pugh said. “I didn’t take it that next step.”
On Monday, the budget-writing committee instead approved a proposal that was developed by an ad hoc group not affiliated with House Human Services. That group, led by Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, the House Majority Leader, consisted of two other lawmakers who are not on Human Services — Rep. Tim Jerman and Rep. Barbara Rachelson, both Democrats from Chittenden County — and Krowinski, the lone member from Human Services. O’Brien was also part of the group. The lawmakers asked stakeholders from affordable housing programs, community action councils, Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont Low-Income Advocacy Council for more information over the weekend.
The ad hoc group developed a new plan that automatically extends child only grants for families after the five-year limit, waives the cap on benefits for 18- to 22-year-olds, and gives the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families the discretion to waive the time limit for any family in extenuating circumstances.
When O’Brien presented the proposal to House Appropriations, lawmakers on the committee believed that the language came from the House Human Services Committee. It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that key members of both committees realized that the proposal from House Human Services had not been considered in the deliberations for the Big Bill.
A majority of House Human Services members say the new language guts the five-year cap proposal they approved last week.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, checked with David Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, about the financial impact of the extension of the child-only grant. A household of two on Reach Up (a parent and child) with a monthly rent of $400 is eligible to receive a grant of $536 to $560. Under the child only grant proposal, that total amount would decrease by about $100 per month.
Lawmakers from Human Services became aware of the discrepancy from news reports, and on Tuesday, Rep. Martha Heath, chair of House Appropriations, and Rep. Kitty Toll, also a member of the budget committee, were grilled by the committee about who knew what when. Toll told lawmakers, in a recording of the discussion, that she thought O’Brien’s proposal had been developed by Human Services, and she was unaware that another group had made the recommendations.
By Wednesday morning, the committee was in disarray. Rep. Topper McFaun, R/D-Barre, eventually turned up the truth: Pugh had neglected to inform the committee that their recommendations had not been sent to House Appropriations, and she had given the ad hoc group the go ahead to develop a new proposal that would supplant the one from House Human Services.
For an hour, lawmakers took turns venting, and several said they felt they couldn’t trust Pugh. Their votes didn’t count. The weeks of testimony was all for naught. In short, they wondered: What was the point of serving on a committee if the process of putting together a bill is ignored? Couldn’t the ad hoc group have proposed amendments to the bill on the floor?
Pugh shed tears as she apologized to the committee. She explained that she knew the Majority Leader wanted to keep working on the bill, and that she should have notified the committee that he wanted to form a subgroup.
Rep. Lynn Batchelor, R-Orleans, said she has no faith anymore.
“Why vote if someone can go round the back of us and do anything they darn well please? Why bother?” Batchelor said. “I guess I’m new enough that it really surprises me that we play Washington, D.C., politics in the state of Vermont.”
Pugh said she took responsibility for not sending out the memo.
“I feel shitty, I feel like I failed the committee,” Pugh said.
“You feel shitty because you got caught,” Donahue retorted. “There are some people who feel screwed.”
“I get as emotional about this as you get about mental health, this is my mental health issue, this is something I feel passionate about,” Pugh said. “I feel that I have let the committee down, and I have not been a good chair because we work well together. We don’t always agree and there are things that happen outside the committee in terms of what’s important to various people. All I can say is No. 1, I’m sorry. No. 2, there was no overt/covert intention for appropriations members to think anything about where changes or nonchanges came from.”
Pugh said she was worried about the Reach Up cap causing an uproar in the Democratic caucus.
“I knew there were going to be 110 amendments from the left wing of the party,” Pugh said.
“That’s fine,” Donahue countered. “That’s a legitimate process, but you participated in the subversion of the process.”
“We’ve had votes on the floor where the law of the state was determined by one person and to demean that and say this had no value because it was one person violates the core of how we function as a democracy and to decide because we were split it’s fine to create a committee and ask people to participate, to come up with alternative language is very different from appropriations deciding whether to take a recommendation,” Donahue said.
Jewett said the ad hoc group did not undermine the committee. “It’s just our democratic process,” he said. “We continue to discuss things you know forever, after we adjourn even.”
“I think the committee ought to turn to the substance of the changes,” Jewett said. “We’re not going to kick kids to the curb.”
CORRECTION: Reach Up advocates did not meet with lawmakers last weekend. The story originally suggested that could have been the case.