Government & Politics

Final Reading: Vermont Senate Democrats host ‘spirited’ fundraiser

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, speaks during a caucus of Senate Democrats at the Statehouse in Montpelier in November. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A gin party! The Senate Democratic Caucus last night hosted a soiree at Caledonia Spirits to celebrate its seven newly elected caucus members, according to an event invitation.

Guests were offered “a great opportunity to casually connect with our Senators as they start the new legislative session.” Such an opportunity could be bought for the modest price of $50 to $1,000. (To be fair, the $1,000 “Golden Dome Sponsor” tier included four VIP tickets, so you could go in on the affair with three of your best pals for the bargain price of $250 a head.)

And more money = more face time with lawmakers. While a bottom-tier $50 ticket offered guests general admission for one hour, VIP tickets, which started at $100 a piece, granted donors an extra hour at the shindig.

Proceeds from the event benefited the Vermont Democratic Party’s Senate Caucus Majority Fund, “established to help the Senate build the infrastructure needed to maintain their majority and elect future Democratic Senators.” Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, told VTDigger this afternoon that much of the proceeds go toward funding the salary of a caucus director.

“You know, none of us have individual staff or offices, and all of us need help, because all of us have lots of constituents and all of us are not equally technically capable,” Clarkson said.

But wait, aren’t legislators barred from accepting lobbyist contributions during the legislative session? Well, this event was technically hosted by the Vermont Democratic Party, AKA not direct solicitations from legislators. “Senators cannot solicit or accept contributions from lobbyists, labor unions, PACs, or corporations while the Legislature is in session,” the invite’s fine print read.

But Clarkson said the caucus decided to bar lobbyists anyway. Emily Bowers, a spokesperson for the Vermont Democratic Party, told VTDigger via email, “In keeping with the tradition of this event, it was a lobbyist free event.” Will nobody think of the poor lobbyists?!

The party declined to provide a guest list on Friday, nor a fundraising total from the evening.

This week’s Senate Dems fundraiser is one of two that the caucus holds every year, Clarkson said. The second is a golf tournament. She extended me an invitation, but I admit, no one wants to see me swing a club.

“I bet there are tons in the press corps that play golf,” Clarkson quipped.

— Sarah Mearhoff


Yesterday, yet another young lawmaker resigned their post, writing in a column in the News & Citizen that serving in the Legislature required an “impossible juggling act.”

This story is not new. Critics of the status quo — including several current and former lawmakers — have long complained that the Legislature's low pay ($811 per week while they're in session, nada after adjournment) and lack of benefits means that anyone not retired or independently wealthy struggles to stick around.

But perhaps S.39, a bill co-sponsored by Senate Government Operations chair Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, and Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, signals momentum for change.

The bill leaves the bigger questions about legislative compensation aside for now, preferring to ask a working group to explore structural reform ideas ranging from pay to staffing, administrative support, and the length of the legislative session. 

But the bill would enact notable changes in benefits — namely, by finally extending health insurance to members of the General Assembly. It also would make caregiving expenses, like child care and elder care, eligible for reimbursement (up to about $5,000).

How do other states do it? Predictably, it's all over the map, according to testimony delivered to Senate Government Operations on Friday. Our neighbors in New Hampshire pay their lawmakers $100 a year for their service. In California, the most generous of all the states, annual salaries approach $120,000.

— Lola Duffort

Vermont legislators are considering a bill that would protect providers and patients from investigations and prosecutions by states that have criminalized certain reproductive health care procedures. But there’s little protection that Vermont can offer beyond its own state lines.

Though it contains numerous provisions, the crux of H.89 is that it bars a Vermont public agency from cooperating in any interstate investigation or proceeding which seeks civil or criminal penalties against a person for traveling to Vermont to obtain an abortion or gender affirming care. The bill also bars the extradition of a Vermonter to another state in order to testify against a patient who received such medical treatment in state lines — that can mean a Vermont-based doctor, or a Vermonter with knowledge of the out-of-state patient’s care.

— Sarah Mearhoff

The Vermont Senate has increased capacity limits in its committee rooms in response to concerns over public access raised last week by newsrooms from across the state. 

In at least three instances earlier this month, reporters were turned away from either Senate or House committee hearings after lawmakers said their meeting rooms had reached capacity limits imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Vermont editors and news directors decried lawmakers’ actions as unconstitutional in a Jan. 17 letter to Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, and House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington. 

In a letter responding to news leaders Thursday evening, Baruth said the Senate Rules Committee voted this week to increase the capacity limits in most meeting rooms by 50% or more. 

Read more here.

— Shaun Robinson

The secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources implored lawmakers this week to look more deeply at logistical and cost implications of the proposed clean heat standard, a measure designed to reduce climate emissions from Vermont’s buildings. 

In the long run, the clean heat standard is expected to save Vermonters $6.4 billion and reduce climate emissions 34% by 2030. 

But on Thursday, Moore sat before lawmakers to highlight the upfront costs. 

Describing her estimates as “really rough,” the secretary told lawmakers that it could cost a total of about $1.2 billion to make the necessary changes and increase the price of fuel by 70 cents per gallon for those who use kerosene, heating oil and propane. 

“I just want to own that this is really rough math,” Moore told lawmakers, adding that a former boss used to tell her, “all models are wrong; some models are useful.”

Read more here.

— Emma Cotton

New numbers reported this week suggest that inpatient psychiatric care capacity in Vermont slowly started to rebound last year, but still remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels. 

Meanwhile, the total number of days that patients seeking mental health care spent in emergency departments statewide reached new heights. That number, over 10,500 days, now appears to be more than triple what a similar analysis found as a baseline in 2015.

That result is not surprising to Ben Smith, medical director of the emergency department at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin. “It’s terrible for these patients,” he said. “You couldn’t tailor-make an environment that is less therapeutic for someone in a mental health crisis.”

Read more here.

— Kristen Fountain


Frustrations over racial equity simmer on the Vermont Climate Council (VTDigger)

Windham County side judge accused of collecting pay for hours she allegedly never worked (VTDigger)

Vermont’s largest health care union will almost double in size (VTDigger)

Taking the plunge: Vermonter breaks world ice swimming record (WCAX)

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter misstated the pay rate for state legislators.

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.


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