The last few weeks my colleagues in the House have spent many hours in calls, internet exchanges and even the rare meeting, reconnecting and planning for the coming legislative session. It was a fine time, then, this last cold and rainy Saturday to spend the better part of the day with my fellow Democrats meeting virtually to select new internal party leadership and then to discuss legislative priorities.
I was greatly encouraged to have heard a recognition by many of the imperative for us — in these difficult days particularly — to collaborate with those “across the aisle.” But I also heard some leading voices call for a “doubling down” in terms of a more partisan agenda. This worries me.
Too much of the energies advanced by my party during the last four years was directed, first, on achieving a so-called “veto proof” majority and then, having gained that, manufacturing showdowns, descending at times to the level of the launching of taunts and double-dares, challenging the governor to veto measures so as to sharpen for voters the perceived “differences” between our political parties. And then, in between, there has been the occasional shunning or even public censure of certain moderate party members who voiced objection or seemed to have stood in the way.
There’s risk in such things. I’m just not seeing it work at the polls. We have a Republican governor who, in New England tradition, has enjoyed and seems to be only gaining in popularity (and one can’t in my book just say it’s because of how well Vermont has approached the current health crisis). Donald Trump got far more votes in Vermont than did my party’s nominee for governor. The Democrat-selected Speaker of the House lost her seat, as did the head of the Vermont’s Progressive House Caucus. And because of the vagaries of our election laws, we continue to see Progressives self-identify as Democrats, Democrats self-identify as Progressives, Democrats abandon the Party to run as Independents and an ever-steady number of Independent candidates take their case of non-partisanship to the voters.
If anything, there was in my view in this last election a mandate for good government. I firmly believe that the “Vermont voter” wants those in Montpelier to spend less time bickering along partisan lines and more time addressing real needs and coming up with solutions. Make no mistake, there are differences between our political parties in terms of orientation and philosophy. But I find those differences almost always reconcilable. Less brinkmanship, more collaboration is the order of our times — and my hope for the coming biennium.
As for the work ahead, much of the next two years has to remain laser-focused on the instant crisis and the hard economic times that will be lingering far after we’re likely to have beaten this virus back. There’s not much place for partisan divide there.
And while I’m sure there will be the usual doses of attention given to social policy legislation this term, I see need to continue to address at least three of our more intractable legislative projects:
First, we simply cannot afford to take our eyes off Vermont’s ever burgeoning public pension liability gap. Last year I heard an increasing number of voices express concern on this topic. I’ve written on this issue in the past. We face a dire financial crisis ahead requiring immediate interventions. Dealing with pension liability shortfalls is not fun work, but it’s the work I think voters expect us to do and to do without needless political fighting, particularly given that our fiscal resources are going to be ever increasingly needed for the direct and indirect economic consequences of this virus.
Likewise, the legislature launched three years ago an initiative designed to “reform” our Act 250 environmental protection scheme. The work was difficult. At the end of the day, not only was there no agreement with the Administration, but not even remote agreement between the Senate and House as to what sorts of reforms were needed. It would seem to me that before launching another two years of committee meetings, veto threats, veto-override threats and the like, the starting point would be to get to some global consensus early on by all involved as to what the priority reforms should be and to determine what realistically can be accomplished.
Finally, there’s the Climate Solutions Act. I voted in favor of what in my view was a decidedly imperfect bill. But, facing the possibility of four more years of federal inactivity on climate, it was at least one potential way for Vermont to contribute. With the new, incoming federal Administration, I have great hope that the feds will take ownership of the issue again and with it less of a need for Vermont to try to solve this global problem on its own. So, I would like to see us take another look at the work of the newly created Climate Commission.
There are already difficulties in the law — in terms of public accountability and the law’s unfortunate placement of lawyers and courts in the middle of all this. The difficulties are highlighted by the Speaker’s recent selection of persons to be on the Climate Commission who have plain conflicts between their private interests and their new — and thoroughly public — obligations. While one might have thought to put on what might be a side “Advisory Committee” persons such as the CEO of Vermont’s principal electric utility, a lobbyist, other private energy providers, the lead installer of government-funded weatherization services, etc., the Speaker has appointed them to serve as full-fledged commission members having unmistakable public policy making duties. And all without an effective mechanism to ensure that they disclose conflicts and in fact, recuse themselves when potentially influenced by their own private interest and their independent duties to their companies as fiduciaries. Again, we need more science, more collaboration, less politics and the separation of personal self-interest from how we address one of our very hardest challenges.
- Linda Joy Sullivan represents the Bennington-Rutland district in the Vermont House. She lives in Dorset.
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