House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, in Montpelier, February 4, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

With every floor vote, committee meeting and hearing now livestreamed and immediately archived online, it has never been easier for the average Vermonter to track the legislative process. 

But on the most politically explosive topic of the session — whether and how to reform the state pension system — it’s been a little harder to follow along.

The House Government Operations Committee has been taking public testimony for weeks now about pensions: how they work, how they’re funded, and why so many are in trouble. 

But halfway through the session, what the panel hasn’t yet done is debate any actual legislative proposals for shrinking the system’s projected $3 billion shortfall.

Behind the scenes, a group of legislative leaders convened by House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, has been meeting since January. On the agenda: how to respond to state Treasurer Beth Pearce’s recommendations that Vermont make painful cuts to the future retirement benefits of teachers and state employees to keep the system solvent.

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, doesn’t think much of the arrangement.

“Here’s how it appears to our members: A secret committee is meeting to put together a plan that’s going to drop from the sky,” said Howard, whose union represents most state workers. “And it’s going to be put into the Government Operations Committee and pushed right through.”

He said he believed lawmakers, including Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, the chair of government operations, would take input in good faith once a proposal was released to the public. But in the meantime, Howard said, he has little to report when his members, who are growing increasingly anxious, call to ask what’s happening. 

Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the Vermont-National Education Association, expressed similar frustration.

“We have no idea what this proposal from the House of Representatives is going to look like,” he said. “We really don’t know who is constructing it.”

The unions for state employees and teachers have been clear about what they want: an income-tax surcharge on the wealthy to help pay down the system’s unfunded liability — and for lawmakers to postpone pension reform until next session, when the pandemic is hopefully no longer such a distraction.

But while House leaders have kept their cards close to the vest about what they plan to do about pensions, they’ve been clear about when they plan to act: this legislative session, and no later.

“Next year, we have redistricting on the table, which is massive,” said Krowinski, referring to the decennial process of redrawing state legislative districts. (Howard had an alternate theory for the desire to address such a politically explosive topic this year, not next: 2022 is an election year.)

As for her closed-door meetings with top House lawmakers to discuss pensions, Krowinski said that’s par for the course with difficult legislation, which usually requires some form of “air traffic control.”

“This is so big. It touches on so many committees,” she said. “We have to be coordinated or we’re not going to be successful.”

Krowinski said she has met regularly with union officials throughout the session to hear their ideas — albeit in different meetings than the ones held with the legislative leaders actually charged with coming to a decision. And once a bill is introduced, she said, they’ll have ample opportunities to weigh in again.

“We’re going to hold lots of time available, including a public hearing, for them to be part of the process and to give us their thoughts and feedback, just like we have been this whole time,” the speaker said.

Deals struck in the cafeteria and cloakroom have always been part of legislative sausage-making. And many longtime legislators argue that such private dealings are a necessary part of the process.

“There will be times you will just want to be able to say stuff out loud, and spitball things in a place where you don’t have to worry about feeling ridiculous, or immediately being shouted down,” said former House Speaker Shap Smith, a Democrat.

Besides, Smith said, whatever proposal is finally put forward will still have to make it through all the relevant legislative committees, plus the full House and Senate — and be signed by the governor. Every step will be public, and there’s no way something as high-stakes and controversial as pension reform will make it across the finish line without substantial modifications. 

Smith also thinks the unions must know at least the contours of what’s coming. 

“That building is a frickin’ sieve,” he said, and the unions for state employees and teachers have some of the state’s most seasoned lobbyists working for them.

“When I hear ‘process,’ I often hear that people are concerned that they’re losing on policy,” he said. 

Allen freely acknowledged that educators ultimately care most about what solution lawmakers land on — not necessarily how they get there. But he insisted union officials really had no clue which way lawmakers were leaning, and, in the absence of information, were beginning to assume the worst.

“If it were something that we wanted, I think it would be out by now,” Allen said. “You know what I mean?”

VTDigger's political reporter.