Lawmaker irked over meetings beyond regular session

A state representative is raising concerns that legislative committees are meeting too frequently outside of the regular legislative session.

Vermont’s citizen Legislature convenes for less than five months a year, typically meeting between January and mid-May. But some committees meet periodically during the rest of the year.

During recent hearings at the Statehouse, the Senate Judiciary Committee has winnowed down a bill on privacy protection, House Education has mulled the controversial Act 46, and the members of Senate Government Operations have put together a bill that would legalize marijuana in Vermont.

In Rep. Heidi Scheuermann’s view, there have been too many meetings in the off-session. The Stowe Republican raised concerns in a Nov. 20 letter to Legislative Counsel, asking for a list of meetings since May and inquiring about the expense.

Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, a member of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

In an interview this week, Scheuermann said that she feels there has been an increase in the number of meetings outside of the legislative session since she began serving in 2007.

“The amount of regular everyday legislative activity that’s happening is, I believe, is much more and I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Scheurmann said.

Scheuermann said that she values the part-time citizen legislature model because it allows elected officials to foster relationships with the people in the communities they represent.

“I really pride myself on being very involved in legislation,” Scheuermann said, but she said that it is difficult to keep up with the latest developments when committees are convening outside the session.

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Study committees, appointed to confer on a specific topic throughout the year, are nothing new, she said. But she questioned standing House or Senate committees meeting to work on legislation that is not urgent, pointing to recent hearings on marijuana legalization.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, also voiced concern about the frequency of meetings out of the session. For Turner, it’s a question of resources and cost.

“I would like to see the value of what’s being done,” Turner said.

According to Stephanie Barrett, associate fiscal officer for the Legislature, off-session expenses in recent years “seem to be following the same pattern.”

Data from the non-partisan Legislative Joint Fiscal Office shows expenses for legislators outside of the normal session tend to be higher in the first year of the biennium, which also are non-election years.

Don Turner

House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, testified before the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee on Tuesday to propose an amendment on the RESET bill. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

During the July-through-December periods of 2011, legislative expenses amounted to $136,000, which, Barrett noted, included the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. In the same period in 2013, the total was roughly $103,800.

Expenses were lower during that period in 2012 and 2014, when the totals were $92,000 and $83,000 respectively.

Barrett noted that the expenses are not strictly for legislative committee meetings. Because of the way bookkeeping is handled, the numbers also include expenses for when lawmakers travel out-of-state for meetings, she said.

A tally by Legislative Counsel between May 18, 2015 and Nov. 25, 2015 found that lawmakers were paid $46,728 in per diems and $58,668 in expenses. Those figures include approved expenses for legislators that are not committee-related, such as attending certain out-of-state conferences or some non-legislative meetings, like the Vermont Economic Progress Council. Some of the expenses also may have been reimbursed to the Legislature by other agencies.

Barrett noted that the figures from 2015 suggest that out-of-session expenses seem to be on track with recent years. “That’s not terribly far off,” she said.

Kae Warnock, of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), said Wednesday that all legislatures across the country rely on interim committees.

“That is where a huge amount of work gets done,” Warnock said.

NCSL classifies 16 legislatures across the country part-time. Two dozen others are considered “hybrids” of full-time and part-time.

But Vermont is unusual because lawmakers rarely convene for special sessions, Warnock said. In other states with part-time legislatures, special sessions are more common.

Stephanie Barrett

Stephanie Barrett, left, an analyst for the Joint Fiscal Office. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

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House Speaker Shap Smith said lawmakers typically convene outside of the session.

“My legislative responsibilities don’t end when the session is over,” Smith said.

The Legislature budgets for meetings of committees outside of the session, and those can be necessary to prepare for the 18 weeks that they’re in Montpelier.

“I think Vermonters expect us to do the work to get ready for the session that’s coming up,” Smith said.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who chaired the Government Operations Committee that convened last month on the topic of marijuana legalization and regulation, said that she sought permission to convene in November when it became clear that the committee would not be able to draft a bill before the Legislature convened in January.

For complex issues, White said, meetings out of the session are important, citing work on the child protection system and healthcare reform. But she said that she has “mixed feelings” about meeting during the off months, and that she feels it should be done judiciously.

House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas also said that meetings outside the session are important to getting work done.

“It’s really difficult within the five months, very intense, very condensed session to both go out to the public and seek public input and come into the building and write a comprehensive piece of legislation,” Copeland-Hanzas said.

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