Final Reading: The irrepressible Cynthia Browning

This is an excerpt from the Final Reading of Friday, Feb. 14.

Rep. Cynthia Browning
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, speaks during a Ways and Means Committee last session. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On the phylogenetic tree of the Statehouse, Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, occupies a position somewhere between “watchdog” and “gadfly.” 

She often votes against the Democratic caucus, especially on fiscal issues, and isn’t shy about speaking on the House floor. On Friday morning, she took about a half hour to closely question H.922, a bill that would make technical corrections in the state’s pension programs. She interpreted a single line as committing the state to fully fund the pensions. Her position did not prevail, although she drew some support from House Republicans. 

That was nothing compared to her floor performance on Tuesday, when she rose just before the formal session began and lambasted House leadership for its actions around last week’s veto override vote on paid family leave. Leadership’s efforts to “flip” votes, she said, were “unseemly and disrespectful,” and for good measure she added “deplorable.”

“Even more deplorable,” she continued, were public comments by House leaders “that seek to blame particular legislators for your own failures of both substance and process.” That was a reference to her fellow southwest Vermont lawmaker, Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Bennington. House leaders reportedly expected Sullivan to vote in favor of override. She voted against, and leadership lost by a single vote. In a Seven Days article, leaders made clear their displeasure with Sullivan.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, did not respond to Browning at the time. In fact, “I haven’t responded at all,” Johnson said on Friday. 

Was Browning’s speech in violation of House decorum? “It may not be, during members’ announcements,” Johnson explained. “It would have been during a formal session. Decorum dictates that you do not guess motives and you do not impugn other members.” 

Either way, there will be no retaliation from leadership. “What sort of discipline or sanction do you recommend?” Johnson said. “Sometimes somebody has a temper tantrum. I have to look past that.”

Browning did credit Johnson with being more tolerant than previous speakers. “I’ve been kicked out of caucus, primaried, taken to the woodshed, the dog house, the outhouse, the wilderness,” Browning said. “I have not experienced that under Speaker Johnson. That’s why I was so disappointed in the public comments.” 

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Indeed, Browning enjoys a plum assignment on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Johnson said that’s an example of making use of each member’s talents, and noted that Browning has been a more productive member under current caucus policy than she was in the days of the outhouse. “Punishment is tempting, but it’s not effective,” Johnson said. 

– John Walters, VTDigger political columnist

This is an excerpt of Final Reading. For the full rundown of bills in motion at the Statehouse, the daily legislative calendar and interviews with newsmakers, sign up here for the unabridged version delivered straight to your inbox Tuesday through Friday evenings.

Correction: Reps. Browning and Sullivan are from southwest Vermont, not southeast Vermont.

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John Walters

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