Op-ed: Time to end Chittenden dominance of Legislature

by John LaBarge 

A recent announcement to close three rural Vermont State College campuses (since withdrawn, for now) raises the question, “does Chittenden County govern the rest of Vermont?” There is growing evidence that it does. Vermont must consider what “equal representation” in our state really means.

Media reports say the state colleges are running out of cash and will need $25 million to avoid insolvency. At the same time, UVM is asking for $25 million more, in addition to its annual $42 million allocation, to help its own Covid-19-related lost revenue. This despite the fact that UVM has a $566 million endowment. 

At a time when three other state colleges in small rural Vermont towns face extinction, UVM boldly sticks out its hand for $25 million dollars, the exact amount the state colleges outside of Chittenden County need just to survive. UVM functions on a financial plane far above the state colleges. For example, the reconstruction of the athletic facility alone costs $95 million.

Here is the interesting part in all of this – media reports say six of the 13 trustees of the state college board, including the chair, live in Chittenden County. None live in Randolph, Lyndon or Johnson, the host towns for the three campuses slated for closure. The Vermont State College Board of Trustees is only one example of Chittenden County’s power and dominance imbedded in state government.

Chittenden County’s influence is also seen with the UVM Medical Center in Burlington continues its steady march across our state, seeking to be Vermont’s single healthcare provider.

Chittenden County consists of 20 towns and holds 36 seats in the Vermont House and six of 30 seats in the Vermont Senate. A seventh senator lives in Colchester but represents Grand Isle. Yet the 63 Northeast Kingdom towns of Caledonia, Essex and Orleans counties have just 17 representatives. Essex County alone has 17 towns (just three shy of Chittenden County), but just two House representatives and two senators.

There is more. Of the 13 major House committees seven have a chair or vice-chair from Chittenden County. Of the 12 major Senate committees Chittenden holds 8 chairs or vice-chairs. Chittenden alone has 36 of the 76 votes needed to pass a bill in the House. It controls six or seven of the 16 votes needed to pass legislation in the Senate.

“It is in the Legislature that Chittenden power threatens the rest of Vermont. It is there that state laws affecting all Vermonters are written and passed. It is there that mandates affecting all of us personally, our businesses, our local education systems and our taxes are created and it is there that all state and federal funding is disbursed throughout our state. “

As each election year passes Chittenden County grows more and more liberal. Burlington’s political power is now void of political diversity. Controlled by liberal Democrats and likeminded Progressives, the City Council’s political diversity no longer exists, nor is it tolerated by city voters.

It is in the Legislature that Chittenden power threatens the rest of Vermont. It is there that state laws affecting all Vermonters are written and passed. It is there that mandates affecting all of us personally, our businesses, our local education systems and our taxes are created and it is there that all state and federal funding is disbursed throughout our state. 

Chittenden County, with politicians politically and culturally separated from rural Vermont, controls legislative committees and the House and Senate floors.

So, it begs the question: does Chittenden County govern the rest of our state? Is there true equal representation in the makeup of the Legislature? Should the rest of Vermont challenge in court how we apportion seats in the Legislature?

After more than two decades of single party rule in Montpelier, political balance must be restored. A fight to change apportionment could take years. It may never happen. One party ruling as a super majority and one county having so much political power statewide is unhealthy to democracy and a possible death knell for rural Vermont.

The solution is before Vermont voters. Choose your representatives wisely. Vote to restore balance to the concentrated power and thinking that now exists in the State House. Until that happens, Vermont outside of Chittenden County will continue to be treated like a backwater.

The author, of Grand Isle, is a former representative of Grand Isle County in the Vermont House of Representatives.