New Legislature

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(Host) As a graduate student intern at the Snelling Center for Government, commentator Helen Labun Jordan is looking forward to observing the new session of the Vermont state legislature.

(Labun-Jordan) For the past ten years, the Vermont state legislature and the non-profit Snelling Center for Government have provided a three-day orientation for new state representatives and senators. This introduction covers topics that range from how to choose your seat on the floor to reading the daily calendar to relations with the judicial branch; and the ambience is a curious combination of the first day of high school and practiced statesmanship.

The one topic that the orientation intentionally avoids is who belongs to which party. New legislators meet each other without the benefit of any R, D, P or I on their nametags. The orientation instead teaches about a statehouse system weighted away from party divisions. For example, all Vermont legislators depend on the same legislative council for help with writing bills and amendments, and this council must provide equal help to each party. Even the descriptions and titles assigned each bill have been made carefully objective.

Another example exists on the budget side, where the Joint Fiscal Office works with the governor’s staff to reach agreement on the money available for each year’s planning. This initial agreement means that party members can’t snatch at whatever set of numbers best supports their own agenda.

Vermont’s wariness of partisan politics stems in part from simple economy: we don’t have the money to pour into luxuries like duplicating services between our three major parties plus Independents. Even if we had a fortune to dedicate to partisanship, I believe that there are compelling reasons to keep our present arrangement.

An environment that emphasizes supporting a party line may easily block much-needed criticism when that party gets on the wrong path. It also focuses on short-term power struggles. The balance between a majority and minority position can quickly change, and constant collaboration keeps both sides prepared for these inevitable transitions. Lawmaking involves an almost endless process of votes, re-votes and amendments. In theory, revision will make any final product better. But this theory works only if the revisions occur for reasons of improvement, not to undermine political rivals. Every state legislature must contend with questions of how to maintain an appropriate mix of party unity and non-partisan progress.

Vermont’s new legislator orientation gave a glimpse of a respectful, cooperative statehouse. I’m looking forward to finding out if this is really how our politicians behave. I suspect that the strong collegiality expressed in early winter will hit a few rough patches by mud season. Nonetheless, the tone today is already much different from what it was in early November, when the world was divided along party lines into winners and losers. The business at hand now is not competing for first place in an election, but governing the state in such a way that everyone may prosper. And this goal should always be shared across each party.

This is Helen Labun Jordan from East Montpelier.

Helen Labun Jordan is a graduate student in community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont.

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