Two Views: Legislative Wrap Up

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(Host) As the legislature prepares to adjourn, commentators Ellen David Friedman and Jeff Wennberg offer Two Views on what happened during this session, what didn’t, and some of the possible reasons why. Here’s Ellen David Friedman.

(Ellen David Friedman) A number of new legislators entered the Statehouse two years ago with the promise of rolling back the clock. They wanted to reverse field on civil unions and Act 60, and even on Act 250. As candidates for office, they were hard working and focused. But their program did not inspire confidence, and their legislative agenda failed to catch fire. What they missed, I think, is how very important the concepts of equity and community are to Vermonters. They didn’t connect on this level.

Conservatives argued that it was our overly activist Supreme Court that forced too much equity on us in the form of the Brigham decision, which led to Act 60, and the Baker decision, which led to the civil unions law. But I have seen 30 years of political activism and I know that Vermonters’ love of fairness and equal treatment is deep. Yes, same-sex marriage is challenging to some, tax-sharing for education onerous to others, and the idea that communities should have a say in development decisions is limiting to business. But these laws survive because our public will leans heavily towards both equity and community.

So I’m pleased that these progressive laws have withstood challenges. But…to really make the progress Vermonters want, future lawmakers must commit to equity in three additional areas: health care, jobs and taxes. It really is time to tackle health care so that it’s an equal right for citizens – whether working or unemployed, rich or poor, sick or healthy. It really is time to stimulate decent jobs at good wages that aren’t dependent on the whims of global corporations. It really is time to tax Vermonters on their ability to pay. The thread of equity weaves a strong community, and here, that’s what we seem to want.

I’m Ellen David Friedman.

(Jeff Wennberg) Legislators are rightfully proud of their bipartisan work on the new stormwater law. Also praiseworthy is the on-site septic bill which closed an environmental loophole large enough to graze livestock on. The law will certainly improve our protection of human health and the environment while streamlining the permitting process. Some environmentalists, however, fear that the new rules can’t be used to defeat environmentally sound projects.

Unlike ten years ago, when Democrat Speaker Ralph Wright ruled the House, this legislature is undertaking reapportionment with different political parties controlling each chamber. After some early bluster, House Republicans surrendered their hard-won majority prerogative and gave the Democrats 95% of what they wanted. Then, just this week, the Democrats demanded the rest. If you listen closely on a quiet evening you can hear Ralph Wright howling in laughter all the way from Bennington.

In earlier years Act 60 was saved by state surpluses. This year it was the deficit to the rescue. Without substantially increased state education spending, there is simply no way to invent a legislative majority to support reform. When Ways and Means Chair Dick Marron finally found the votes in the House to pass an Act 60 amendment, the Senate wasn’t buying.

Likewise, the full House and the Education Committees in both chambers supported a public-school-choice bill. However, thanks to the Senate, most low income parents are not yet free to enroll their kids in any public school that will teach them.

Governor Dean began the session with the most unpalatable state budget in memory. The House rejected the governor’s massive property tax increases and restrained state spending. The Senate was just unrestrained. Whatever the outcome, this is the unavoidable result when the chief executive throws the budget up like a jump ball and leaves town.

What was missing from the Legislature’s 2002 agenda? The number one concern of working Vermonters: jobs.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for 25 years. Jeff Wennberg is a former mayor of Rutland.

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