Less Government, More Government, or More Effective Government?
Photo courtesy State of Vermont
I regularly read True North Reports (TNR), billed as “the other side of Vermont news.” I’m troubled by TNR’s cutline as it refers to “news” when it’s really opinion. Serious journalists differentiate between the two.
I read TNR to better hear and understand the spectrum of Vermont political opinion. Sometimes I learn things I didn’t know, hear opinions with which I can agree, or read things that galvanize my opposition to what is being expressed.
John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute and I correspond occasionally on matters of mutual interest and we’ve appeared on panels and media together. I can’t speak for him, but I respect his experience and opinions, though we often disagree. I’ve also been a guest many times on Bill Sayre’s excellent WDEV Radio Vermont show “Common Sense Radio.” Bill has built his brand on dialogue, often between folks who don’t see things the same way.
Confining one’s universe of understanding to those whose outlook is the same as our own only further polarizes our small state and large country. We learn nothing from living in an echo chamber and will never make progress crafting solutions to our problems if we continue to define ourselves by what we oppose rather than opening our minds to the ideas and opinions of others in civil debate.
A recent opinion piece by Rob Roper in True North entitled, “Vermont does not need or want a full time, professional Legislature” got me thinking.
Roper takes on S.39, a bill to address chronic, and, I would argue, debilitating, under-compensation of Vermont’s citizen legislature. This discussion goes back decades.
In 2004, I served on a legislature-commissioned Snelling Center study group to assess and make recommendations regarding the compensation of Vermont government officials.
We made five key recommendations regarding the legislature:
- … an increase in the base salary for legislators. To provide reasonable remuneration for legislators that will allow citizens from many different backgrounds to serve without economic hardship, we recommend that legislative pay be tied to the average wage of Vermonters in the private sector.
- … tying future adjustments in legislative pay to a specific benchmark. We recommend that legislative salaries be adjusted automatically so that they continue to be at a level equal to the average private sector salary for Vermont from the previous year.
- … that the legislators be compensated for at least a portion of their time and expenses beyond the actual session. We recommend that the legislators be paid a salary to cover both their work during the legislative session and their normal legislative duties when the legislature is not in session.
- … that reimbursement rates for legislative expenses be tied to the federal government rates for Montpelier published in the Federal Register annually.
- … that support to cover the cost of health insurance be provided to those members who are not already covered or otherwise provided such benefits.
This was almost 20 years ago. After all the careful study and discussion that led to these conclusions, no action was taken by the legislature.
Read for yourself Mr. Roper’s recommendations, but, as I understand them, although he expresses sympathy for legislative under-compensation, Roper makes an inverse case ̶ shrinking workload to achieve more equitable pay, that is get paid the same, but work less. He recommends alternating annually between a 30- and a 60-day legislative calendar. Fair enough, but …?
And I wish he’d confined his argument to his ideas rather than indulging a need to disparage and condemn his fellow Vermonters:
“And that is what S.39 is really about: feeding those political egos. The folks running the show in Montpelier feel like they are saving the world and deserve all the trappings that go with that mighty calling. What’s more, it shouldn’t be expected of them that their talents be distracted by other mundane tasks such as other gainful employment. They want to be a full-time, full-pay class of political elites who do nothing but figure out ways to meddle in the lives everyone else 24/7/365.”
Personally, I would argue instead for more and better government.
Vermont faces a tsunami of complex issues on too many of which we are losing ground. Among them: access to affordable healthcare, a Vermont State College system in leadership and financial disarray, increasing deaths from drug overdoses, one of the worst homeless rates in the country, the grim facts of childhood hunger (one in eight Vermont children face hunger daily), out of reach affordable and available childcare, climate degradation of our air, water and soils, a shortage of livable-wage jobs and affordable housing.
The Roper solution is less government and less action ̶ 30 senators and 150 representatives meeting for 30 days one year in the biennium and 60 the next. Will this enable us to solve the so far intractable problems Vermonters confront daily?
The current legislature meets for roughly four to five months. They are well served by The Legislative Counsel, which supports the legislature on a variety of legislative initiatives, especially around drafting and editing legislation consistent with prevailing law. They also maintain the official Vermont Statutes Annotated archive.
The Joint Fiscal Office, the other important legislative resource, provides non-partisan financial research and analyses to key House and Senate committees.
But beyond these two vital resources, they have little on which to base their deliberations as they confront complex systems like public education, the environment, criminal justice, and healthcare… other than an army of self-interested lobbyists. What external resources, beyond “study committees,” does the legislature need to address the looming issues Vermonters face daily?
I would never make the case that Vermont needs a full-time, professional, market-compensated legislature like those in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. We’re too small. I would agree with Roper that such a legislature would be overkill for a state of 630,000 people.
But neither should we starve the one resource we have to build and strengthen communities, solve complex problems, and ensure that Vermont is a source of well-being for individual Vermonters and their communities. Freedom and Unity as our 235-year-old motto states ̶ an equilibrium between individual freedom and the well-being and security of our communities.
It’s long been understood that legislators don’t make enough to live on and that their work in the legislature generally precludes holding a full-time job, raising concerns that legislative service might only be possible for those whose income and assets allow them to serve for such modest compensation or that the legislature will be peopled primarily by older retired people with some financial security and available time.
Cautious about the timing of the compensation increase, so as not to vote current sitting members a raise, the Senate has passed S.39. This is a start and should enable a broader socio-economic spectrum of Vermonters to serve.
As an appropriate trade off for enhanced compensation, the legislature would do well to heed the recent work of VTDigger with regard to making the financial and possible conflict disclosures more accessible to the electorate and to the press.
The ongoing lack of ethical accountability and enforcement has long been a source of concern to Vermonters if not their elected leaders.
In 2017, A toothless State Ethics Commission was created by Act 79.
Two years later, a code of ethics was adopted with no significant enforcement capacity.
Last year, the legislature embedded the code of ethics in statute for all state employees with a mandatory training component, but the Ethics Commission still has no investigatory or enforcement capacity, leaving the issue of ethics little more than aspirational.
We have in our state a wealth of economic, social, and technical resources that could enrich the legislature’s decision-making capacity and provide a counter-balance to the self-interests of the lobbying industry.
Might the legislature partner with Vermont colleges and/or leading-edge non-profit organizations to commission research and offer up possible solutions?
Let’s be our best selves and agree on ways to strengthen a legislative body that can make near-term progress solving our complex and persistent problems.