Politics

Final Reading: House debates lawmaker and state employee raises

Rep. Janet Ancel
Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, is seen framed by the arms of Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, during committee discussion at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Friday, May 3, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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.

—  The House approved a budget provision that would tie lawmakers’ pay to that of state constitutional officers (the governor, treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general and auditor). 

That means that lawmakers, who currently receive about $14,000 per legislative session, would see raises when those state officials did. But the measure drew opposition from many, who said that the Covid-19 pandemic is not the right time to discuss hiking legislative pay.  

“We should not change statutorily how we’re going to be compensated now during a pandemic and during record unemployment in our state,” said House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney. 

But others argued that the change is a long overdue opportunity to increase compensation, and help younger and lower income Vermonters serve in the Statehouse. 

“I’ve served quite a few years and I’ve watched way too many of my colleagues leave because they couldn’t afford to serve,” said Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“And I think it’s time that we took even what I think is a fairly modest step to try to make this service more accessible to more people,” Ancel said. Lawmakers voted 82-61 in favor of the provision. – Xander Landen

— Lawmakers shot down an amendment to the Q1 budget bill that would require state employees and the Scott administration renegotiate their contract in the wake of expected revenue losses from Covid-19. 

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State employees and the administration reached agreement on the contract in the fall of last year, with some employees seeing raises and most seeing $1,400 one-time, lump sum payments. The contract is expected to cost the state $30 million in additional revenue. 

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, who proposed the amendment — and others who supported it — said that the agreement was reached before the economic crisis, and placed too much additional burden on an already strained budget. But the amendment failed overwhelmingly in a vote of 16-129.

“They deserve our commitment and investment in the coming year,” Rep. Marybeth Redmond, D-Essex, said of state employees.  “They had our backs. Now we must have theirs.” – Xander Landen

— The Statehouse Artwork and Portrait Project Committee is moving forward this session. The committee gained attention in the fall with its call to diversify Statehouse portraits, almost all of which are currently white men. 

The bill, formerly known as S.285, which will create a committee to make recommendations on diversification, is being attached to the capital construction bill, H.955, which has been approved by the Senate. 

The main sponsor of the amendment, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, said although the Legislature has been primarily focused on Covid-19 response legislation, she thinks it’s timely because of the nation’s current reckoning around diversity, inequality and systemic racism.

“I want to make sure we in Vermont really have a conversation about reconceptualizing how we view diversity and inclusion,” Hardy said. – Grace Elletson

— The House approved its Agriculture Covid-19 relief package in a Wednesday floor session. The senate bill, S.351, appropriates about $35.2 million in relief to farmers, processors and other agencies to support the agricultural community. 

The bill does not include any appropriation to financially support undocumented farm workers. When the bill was in the Senate Agriculture committee, there was a proposal on the table to give undocumented farm workers a $500 stimulus check to provide them some relief, in lieu of the $1,200 federal stimulus check to legal residents. 

Hardy said the committee was advised by legislative council that the program would not qualify for the $1.25 billion in Covid-19 relief money the state received from the federal government. If the program moved forward, they feared the feds could claw the money back, Hardy said. 

“It was just too risky for both the state and individual recipients,” Hardy said. – Grace Elletson

— Members of the House Govs Ops and Judiciary committees continued to take testimony on police reform legislation — S.219 and S.119 — that would mandate all state police wear body cameras and prohibit all law enforcement officers from using chokeholds and other similar restraints.

Kiah Morris, the movement politics director for Rights & Democracy Vermont, suggested the House consider including language in one of the proposals to set up a citizen review board of law enforcement that has subpoena power.  

“The solution that you come forth with has to be the one that will bring the most healing for the people that are impacted and that will take a much longer deliberative process,” Morris said.

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James Duff Lyall, executive director of ACLU of Vermont, said the “impulse to respond in this moment is a good one,” referring to the swift response legislators have taken to moving pieces of police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last month.

Lyall said that as it’s currently written, the ACLU has decided against taking a position on S.219 because, although it mandates state police wear body cameras, it lacks a model policy for the use of the technology. He said ideally there would be a change to the legislation that allows for a governing policy to be promulgated before police begin deploying body cameras. 

The Senate passed S.219 and S.119 out of its chamber today. Now the bills need House approval. – Kit Norton

— As the Senate moves forward with its last week of remote work before it recesses on Friday, Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, made clear that if the public can’t access Zoom committee discussions live due to technical malfunctions, the discussions have to stop. 

The announcement during an all-Senate caucus discussion comes after a few Senate committee discussions weren’t able to be viewed live a few days ago, Ashe said. 

During one day in late May, when virtually all committee meetings were unviewable because of a Zoom glitch, the House cancelled its meetings. But the Senate moved forward after receiving legal permission to proceed with the meetings from The Office of Legislative Council. 

“If it creates the appearance of not being accessible, we’ve got to stop it,” Ashe said. – Grace Elletson

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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