Inside the Golden Bubble: When politics trump process

Rep. Ann Pugh

Rep. Ann Pugh, chair of the House Human Services Committee. VTD/Alan Panebaker

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.

Willem Jewett

Rep. Willem Jewett

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.

Rep. Topper McFaun, R/D-Washington, discusses the foam insulation he's had blown into the attic and basement of his 18th century Barre farm house. VTD/Josh Larkin

Rep. Topper McFaun, R/D-Washington. VTD/Josh Larkin

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.

Follow Anne on Twitter @GallowayVTD

Comments

  1. Stan Hopson :

    Pugh should be impeached. If she had any credibility she’d step down – now.

    • Renée Carpenter :

      Right, and you probably could care less about the thousands of Vermont children who will deal with trauma and deficiencies all their lives when their families can’t feed them, or house them, or protect them from violence which is often a result of despair.

      Everyone makes mistakes, and I’d rather those mistakes lean on the side of compassion rather than heartlessness.

      Ann Pugh is chair because she has decades of real fact-based experience. I’m sorry members of her committee couldn’t respect that more in the first place. I appreciate Anne Pugh’s valiant effort to protect the families of poor Vermont children. Anyone else?

      • Timothy MacLam :

        Without the Ann Pughs of the state, who will advocate for the citizens mired in poverty? Evidently not the House majority and certainly not the Governor.

      • Christian Noll :

        Thank you Renee and I agree with your post.

        I’m pretty sure you meant to say: “and you probably couldn’t care less” and not “could care less.”

        I still mistakenly say: “I could care less” when in fact, I meant to say “I couldn’t care less.” It’s one of the most accepted mistakes in spoken English.

        Thank you for your post.

    • Steven Farnham :

      When the governor scurries around the state to push the merger between corporate monsters Gaz Metro and GMP – that’s fine. But let someone with a small amount of political clout help out people who cannot defend themselves? By sunrise that person’s head better be publicly displayed on stick!

  2. Is Pugh still chair of the committee?

  3. sandra bettis :

    i agree with renee – the larger picture is more important. but, i also have to comment on the archaic procedures at the state house – a prayer before each session – really??

  4. Peter Everett :

    People can earn a college degree in 5 years, probably paid for by the taxpayer. Rather see my $$$ go there, rather than a lifetime of monthly payments. If these people want, they CAN better themselves. A gov’t that encourages a lifetime of “taking” from others will never work. Let you and I provide them with the incentive to make something of themselves. If they truly wish to better themselves, five years should be enough time. If it isn’t, they should at least show some signs of becoming independent of gov’t support. An extension can be granted case by case This would be a “compassionate” way to get people to get off the public “dole”.

    • Walter Carpenter :

      “An extension can be granted case by case This would be a “compassionate” way to get people to get off the public “dole”.”

      It should be noted here that the entire military-industrial establishment is on the “public dole.” I think before we force reach-up people barely surviving, if that, off of the dole, we should force lockheed martin, McDonnell Douglas, Halliburton, and so on off of the “public dole.”

  5. This is an incredible story and this person teaches at UVM. What kind of values is she instilling in the minds of our children to attend or have attended the state’s flagship university?

    Stan Hopson has it right, Ms. Pugh should be impeached. Its questionable that that she has the character to do the right thing, so Shap Smith probably needs to act.

    Again, Incredible !!!!!

  6. Tony Redington :

    The ad hoc group acted as the “real mother” in a Solomonesque dilemma. And correctly.

  7. Jim Eckhardt :

    Send the Legislators home. It is apparent that if the leadership does not like the outsome of a particular vote they will just do what they want anyway. In this case they sent it to a subcommittee that was made up of people that would vote the way they wanted them to. This is not politics this is dirty politics. Ann Pugh should be ashamed but even more so Rep. Jewett should be ashamed. They already have a supermajority if they cant get their bills pushed through with a supermajority it is not okay to take it upon themselves to change the committee votes. Seriously send them all home and lets save some money. Lets just have Jewett and Smith sit around and tell Vermonters what they are going to do. DISPICABLE.

  8. Eric Robichaud :

    Won’t you all just STOP and think of the children!

  9. Jim Christiansen :

    “You feel shitty because you got caught,” Donahue retorted. “There are some people who feel screwed.”

    Love the quote.

    Yet another nail in the coffins of transparency and confidence in Vermont’s government.

  10. Craig Powers :

    Do not see how anyone could trust her again.

  11. Phyllis North :

    Regardless of the issue, this is no way to run any committee. I am surprised Pugh has not stepped down. If she doesn’t, she should be fired.

  12. Deborah Bucknam :

    I am at a loss as to why elected officials who spend other people’s money, and then take credit for it are “compassionate”. Compassion comes from individual good works and charitable giving, not from voting to spend other people’s money, and then patting yourself on the back. Compassion involves hard work and sacrifice.

    The poor in Vermont deserve our compassion. Real compassion is analyzing as to how to actually help the poor. I have met countless young women on government assistance during my career. The poor are no different than the rest of us. They all–everyone of them–tell me their children are smart. They want their children to have a bright future. They also want to be independent, and they want their future to be financially secure. They don’t want to be on the welfare treadmill for the rest of their lives. How to help them achieve those goals? For one, by making Vermont a magnet for good paying jobs so they can move to the middle class, and by educating the poor on the skills needed to obtain those jobs. Making Vermont a jobs magnet is not an easy task, but compassionate action is hard work. Voting to spend other people’s money is not.

  13. Mary Claire Carroll :

    So here is the thing…legislators are human…and sometimes their passion for what they believe in causes them to do something out of character. Rep. Pugh is a strong and smart chair who has led her committee well over the years. Human Services typically speaks for the disenfranchised of VT when they feel the administration has screwed up. Her committee members work hard to do a lot with little resources. I am sure the committee feels like their work was for naught, but it strikes me that leadership is to blame here. i don’t think they trusted Human Services to go in whatever direction they wanted to go. with the cap…hence the task force. Thanks for the detailed article Anne G. This is why I keep reading VT. Digger.

  14. Jacob Miller :

    Those who are concerned about “government dependence” should focus their efforts on the $44 Billion subsidy to the oil industry instead of the 6,000 poor families here in Vermont. But, no it is easier to pick on the disadvantaged.

  15. Joy Karnes Limoge, Esq. :

    This is shameful and disappointing! This is not a mistake it was willful and deliberate circumvention by a number of people. Their actions not only undermine the political process but added fuel to the weakening trust of Vermonters. Trust lost can not be easily regained. At the very least Rep. Pugh should step down. How about a little accountability!

    • krister adams :

      Joy: Calm down. It is quite true this is a small issue when compared to the (for example) corporations/employers of this State being exempted from helping to subsidize Catamount Health. This alone is (was) $15M in revenue.

  16. Deborah Bucknam :

    I agree with Jacob that subsidies to energy companies should be stopped. Subsidies to rich and powerful corporations, who can make large campaign contributions, should be banned. It reeks of corporatism, the subsidizing of favored companies. Subsidies per kilowatt hour to the wind industry is 12 times the subsidies to oil and gas. And then, of course, there are the required high rates paid to wind, that Vermont rate payers, poor and rich, have to pay. There are many programs that benefit the middle class and rich, including subsidies to the favored corporations, like wind and solar companies. If we used taxes only to benefit the poor, we would have plenty of money to help them.

  17. Patrick Cashman :

    Willful subversion of our governance, regardless of the motivation, is always something to be ashamed of. Ms. Pugh’s tears would seem to affirm the same.

    • krister adams :

      “Willful subversion of our government”? Really? What is she, al quaeda?

  18. Deborah Bucknam :

    I agree with Jacob. We need to stop subidies of all energy corporations, including wind and solar. It is corporatism, in which favored corporations–those who pay big campaign contributions– are helped by the governmernt. On a per-unit-of-energy-produced basis, the production tax credit provides a subsidy to the wind industry that is at least 12 times greater than that provided to the oil and gas sector and 6.5 times greater than that provided to the nuclear industry. And Vermont requires ratepayers–both rich and poor– to pay above market rates for wind and solar energy. If we stopped subsidizing the middle class and rich, we would have plenty of resources for the poor.

  19. John Greenberg :

    Deborah Bucknam writes: “On a per-unit-of-energy-produced basis, the production tax credit provides a subsidy to the wind industry that is at least 12 times greater than that provided to the oil and gas sector and 6.5 times greater than that provided to the nuclear industry.”

    Please document these figures and show precisely how “subsidy” is being defined.

    In the absence of a source, my guess is that these figures are for one or two years of the Obama administration only when, thanks to the stimulus bill, massive amounts of federal funds were directed to renewables. It is worth noting, however, that the investments made under Obama were greater than the entire history of all federal investments in renewables COMBINED.

    Also, I’m guessing that these figures totally ignore the previous 50+ years of subsidies given to the other industries mentioned, as well as ignoring difficult-to-assess subsidies like the nuclear industry’s Price-Anderson Act.

    When all of these overlooked subsidies are re-evaluated, the renewables industry has still not received anything like the subsidies long available to its competitors.

    That’s precisely what you’d expect from a lobbyist-driven system in which mature, highly profitable industries have far greater lobbying funds to spread around than the tiny businesses which, for the most part, still constitute the renewables industry.

    But this is all guesswork on my part, based on general information, so I’m willing to be proven wrong.

  20. Robert Joseph :

    1. Neither corporate nor social welfare are working as implemented. There needs to be reform/limits on all forms of government dependence.

    2. Unemployment rate are some of the lowest in the country. So 60 months is plenty of time to get on your feet.

  21. Jackie Barnett :

    We don’t shouldn’t be addressing whether we like or dislike the content of the submitted language or the intent of those voting.

    The only questions that should be addressed here is was it legal for the ad hoc committee to submit something other than what was voted on, under the guise of the Committee? And was Ann Pugh responsible? If the answer to the first is yes, then those responsible should be impeached. If not illegal then they should receive a formal reprimand from the House floor. If the answer to the first and second is yes, then Ann Pugh should be definitely be impeached.

  22. Stan Hopson :

    Jackie, you succinctly addressed the issue. If Vermont media did their job, mainstream press would be asking your very question to Shap Smith and the House leadership.

    The absence of inquiring minds to the politicos around here grant Shap & Co. the ability to sweep abhorrent behavior under the rug.

  23. Linda Markin :

    Thank you AG and VtDigger for this exposé on committee process in our Statehouse. It is hard to imagine another news outlet taking up the task. My donation is on its way. Keep up the good work.

  24. Maree Gaetani :

    Ann Pugh is a strong anti-poverty advocate and has spent many years dedicating her time to direct service. I continue to support her and the work she does.

  25. The silence on this matter of betrayal is deafening.

    Where is the outrage:

    From all the other House members that some of their peers cannot be trusted?

    From Speaker Smith that people are playing games with the integrity of the House system?

    From Governor Shumlin that his plan to rationalize Reach Up has been scuttled by untoward methods by individual House members?

    From the press, other than the vtdigger, has another media outlet even mentioned this mess ????

    What is this a Banana Republic?

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