Inside the Golden Bubble: Another committee squabble leads to revotes

House Speaker Shap Smith. VTD file/Josh Larkin

House Speaker Shap Smith. VTD file/Josh Larkin

Editor’s note: Inside the Golden Bubble is an occasional column about Statehouse politics.

Update (1:10 p.m., April 11):
When the House Education Committee headed home Wednesday night, certain members— including the committee chair, Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington— thought they had reached a consensus on a substitute amendment that would put a moratorium on “flipping” a public school to a private one, until a study had been carried out on the issue.

To Donovan’s surprise, two amendments landed on the committee’s table on Thursday. Rep. Bernie Juskiewicz, R-Cambridge, introduced the unexpected amendment after conferring with Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, Rep. Caroline Branagan, R-Georgia, and several other lawmakers.

Juskiewicz’s amendment— which includes a study but no moratorium— won out in the end, with an 8-2 vote. Even Donovan voted for it, explaining she did so in the interest of “compromise.”

Donovan scheduled a special “decorum session” for Thursday afternoon to discuss committee rules and rehash what she referred to as a “rugged week.”

Another House floor fight may be narrowly averted if the Democratic leadership manages to contain the disquietude that has erupted in yet another committee.

The House Education Committee voted 7-4 on Tuesday to approve a study proposal. Sounds pretty pedestrian, but the issue at hand — a provision that would prohibit public schools from “flipping” to independent entities — is fundamental for members of the Democratic leadership team, and they want to see the change go into effect immediately. The only problem is, there was a mini-rebellion in the committee and three of the seven Democrats didn’t comply with the wishes from on high. Instead, they rolled four of their Democratic compatriots who, along with Rep. Johannah Donovan, the chair, ended up voting in the minority.

It’s the third time this session that a committee in the House has not respected the wishes of a chair, and some say it’s a sign that the Democratic caucus, which has an overwhelming majority of 96 members, is starting to fracture. Instead of allowing those votes, which reflect poorly on the chairs to move forward, the House leadership has insisted on multiple revotes in committee until bills better reflect a majority opinion.

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Shap Smith, the House Speaker, and his deputy Willem Jewett, have maintained order by trying to build consensus with chairs and committee members, but internal strife has boiled over several times, and though that’s not unusual, members say, what is different this time is that Republicans are joining forces with Democrats and in some cases Progressives to counter the prevailing winds of the Dems caucus.

In those instances, the Democratic leadership has asked committees to reconsider their actions in light of the “fact” that the proposals wouldn’t have had support on the floor. Or as other lawmakers put it, leadership is trying to avoid a public “shit show” in which the outcome of a vote is less than certain. Members of the minority parties — the Progressives and the Republicans — view this as a subversion of the process; the Dems see it as a necessary display of discipline in the unwieldy 150-member House.

Whether a sugar-sweetened beverage, a hard cap on welfare-to-work benefits or a study of the implications of allowing public schools to go private would have had support among rank-and-file members, however, is a moot point, since the legislation has not been allowed to reach the floor in its original form. That’s not uncommon. What is unusual is the level of infighting on the committee level over majority decisions that don’t reflect the will of the chair and/or the leadership. Lawmakers say the subversion of the committee process that took place a few weeks ago in House Human Services has set a disturbing precedent.

An amendment passes and is modified

In House Ed on Tuesday debate turned emotional when Rep. Carolyn Branagan, R-Georgia, proposed that the committee study the implications of public schools going private. Branagan’s amendment eliminated language in a education housekeeping bill that would have prohibited public schools from closing and then reopening in the same building as a private school. At the moment, there is nothing in state statute that would give the State Board of Education the authority to block local decisions to “flip” public schools into private nonprofits. Winhall turned private 15 years ago, and now North Bennington is poised to take the same step — the town has voted in favor, and the state has approved the decision, though the school board still needs to take final vote.

Rep. Brian Campion orchestrated the rebellion. The lawmaker, a Democrat from Bennington whose school district has voted to turn an elementary school into a private entity, invited Branagan to propose the study. Campion insisted that the committee had not taken enough testimony and had rushed the provision through. “We trust constituents to elect leaders,” he said. “Let’s trust them to make decisions.” He said he wants to hear evidence that “flipping” schools hurts families and school districts.

“To me this is a process issue,” Campion said in an interview. “I didn’t feel comfortable with it without answering more questions. I see no need to rush it.”

Donovan told the committee she was personally offended by that accusation. Her attempt to thwart the amendment by offering to rework it with Branagan failed, and Republicans on the committee, including Rep. Don Turner, a Republican from Milton who is the minority leader in the House, demanded a vote on Branagan’s amendment. Three Democrats — Reps. Campion, Kevin Christie and Valerie Stuart — voted with the Republicans.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, said the State Board of Education would play an advisory role under the new structure. Photo by Josh Larkin.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, said the State Board of Education would play an advisory role under the new structure. Photo by Josh Larkin.

Christie, a Democrat from Hartford, said he voted for the amendment because a change of this magnitude doesn’t happen this often, and he wanted an opportunity “to make sure what we legislate does what we want it to do.”

A few hours later, the education housekeeping bill, which was to be discussed on the House floor was pulled and sent back committee. Smith and Jewett asked lawmakers to reconsider the Branagan amendment. On Wednesday, lawmakers heard more testimony. In a compromise deal with Republicans, Smith allowed Branagan’s amendment to be published in the Thursday calendar.

On Wednesday, the committee agreed to draft an alternate amendment, which puts a moratorium on public schools turning private, pending the results of a study. Donovan, who spearheaded the move to include the private school provision in the bill, said, “the Branagan amendment didn’t get to the kernel of what we want.”

Daren Houck, the headmaster of Winhall’s independent school, the Mountain School, told the committee that the Mountain School has seen an increase in enrollment, improved test scores, and reasonable tuition costs.

“Statute should honor and respect the local voter,” Houck said.

Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca, who has been vocal about his concerns about public schools turning private, said he supports the study. Those decisions, Vilaseca told the committee, should not be left up to individual towns, since a school’s funding decisions have a ripple effect throughout the state.

Barbara Crippen, legal counsel for the Agency of Education, laid out what could “go rogue” during a public-to-private transition. Many of the concerns center upon the needs students with disabilities — unlike public schools, private schools aren’t required to be certified in all areas of special education.

A bottle uncorked?

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Is the strident tone in some committees a sign that Smith, who has effectively managed the Red Room through his chairs, losing his powerful grip on the House? Lawmakers say no, but they do say there is a lot of pent-up anxiety about the direction of the Democratic Party in the Legislature right now because of the tone set by the executive branch. Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat who governs in wheeler-dealer mode, shocked lawmakers at the beginning of the session when he proposed cuts to the welfare system and the transference of a tax benefit for low-income working Vermonters known as the earned income tax credit to a subsidy program for child-care workers that would boost subsidies for qualifying households by $17 million.

These are litmus test issues for liberal Democrats, and the disconnect between what most House Democrats believe and what their fearless leader is doing has led to something of an existential crisis and has opened a Pandora’s box of uncertainty. Some lawmakers question whether the governor’s proposals deviate from the populist tradition of the Democratic Party in Vermont; others see it as an opportunity to bring the party closer to the center and the GOP point of view on certain issues.

Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, minority leader of the Progressive Party, says the bottle has been uncorked for “more independent thinking.”

“In the last session you had in the first year a brand new governor after an exciting election and new proposals on the table,” Pearson said. “Everyone was swept up. He presented a vision and boom drove it through. The second year it was approached a little more skeptically. This session it’s not new and so you have that dynamic anyway, then he comes out with proposals that would make Jim Douglas blush. A lot of Democrats are saying those aren’t the values of the Democratic Party at its core. It’s created a little chaos.”

Rep. Chris Pearson. VTD/Josh Larkin

Rep. Chris Pearson. VTD/Josh Larkin

Added to that dynamic is the sense that the Democratic Legislature has become the governor’s opposition, since the Republican Party is “more or less in shambles,” Pearson said.

Turner, the lead Republican in the House, sees it differently. He sees the moderate sway of some House members toward more conservative positions as an opportunity for his party to influence legislation. “I feel we’re being somewhat successful,” he said. “We’re building alliances across party lines.” If the chairs don’t agree, however, he said, “we get submarined.”

Turner said the Dems don’t need to maneuver votes through because they outnumber Republicans nearly two-to-one.

“We can’t win if the committee process doesn’t work,” Turner said.

The Speaker says the goal is “to get something to the floor that is going to get a majority of the votes” and the outcome isn’t always certain.

“We spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether what a committee puts out will pass,” Smith said. “If it can’t pass, we’ll go back and say this is what we’re hearing, and is there a way to address those concerns and keep the core idea of what you want to do. It doesn’t do a committee any good to put something on floor that doesn’t survive a House vote.”

Sending a bill back to committee, Jewett said, gives lawmakers an opportunity to come up with something “everyone can live with.”

Party discipline has not broken down in the most fundamental sense. The bills that are coming out of the House — however they are crafted — are passing by large majorities despite peripheral bickering. The majority of representatives have backed proposals to thwart the governor’s most unpalatable initiatives, while the Republicans, on the other hand, sensing an opportunity to exploit the rift, recently urged Shumlin to veto the House proposed tax bill.

Smith says the heightened tensions this year aren’t any different than in previous sessions, and lawmakers have had an “ample opportunity” to be heard on the floor.

“I think that there’s always an ebb and flow in any year when you’re talking about difficult issues that have some real philosophical differences that will make things come to a loggerhead,” Smith said.

Editor’s note: Alicia Freese contributed to this report, which was updated at 6:30 a.m.

Clarification: The original language in H.521, the miscellaneous education law bill, specifically prevented a public school from closing and then reopening as an independent school in the same building.

Correction: The House Education Committee agreed to draft an alternate version of Rep. Branagan’s amendment, but it did not vote on the amendment on Wednesday.

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Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor of VTDigger and the executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 25. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

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