by Paul Dame, VTGOP Chair
Among the many poorly formed bills that Democrats send to Gov. Scott, the most audacious one, and one that is likely to be sustained was the bill that doubled legislative pay. Democrats have raised the cost of living for all Vermonters through increases in driver’s licence and vehicle registration renewals, increases in property taxes, a new mandatory 5% withholding of pay for retirement plans and a new payroll tax for an extra 1% and for sticking it to taxpayers, legislators believed now was the time to reward themselves with not just a modest increase, but a fundamental restructuring of what it means to serve in the Vermont legislature. This effort would have destroyed the nature of our citizen legislature, and taken a drastic step towards creating a permanent political class in Vermont for the first time in our state’s history.
Democrats give the excuse that the pay increase is needed to recruit legislators. But I can tell you as someone who has done recruiting, the conversation of pay either never comes up – or it’s an after-thought. The real deal-breaker for most otherwise qualified people is the unknown time commitment. Gov. Douglas recently recounted that when Republicans were in the majority, he remembers adjourning in March. Since Democrats have taken control, they constantly extend the session to advance any number of non-essential bills that are popular among the Democrat donor base. In effect they are using taxpayer dollars to do the research of a left-wing think tank. When the scope of the legislative session is so broad its length could extend indefinitely, and in other Deep Blue states, they have become full-time year-round positions with salary and benefits. I think our framers were wise to keep the session run by regular people who had other real jobs to get back to.
How many employers have any of us ever worked for that would be perfectly content to allow us to take off 4-6 months without giving any firm date for when we would return? Just posing the question is preposterous. And that unpredictable and lengthy time commitment does far more to restrict regular W2 employees from stepping up to run for office and to serve than the pay differential. How then do the Democrats do it? Well, the nature of their employers are fundamentally different. Many Democrats work for non-profit corporations that received money from the State of Vermont, either in the form of direct appropriations, subsidies or as contractors.
If we start at the top we can take a look at House Speaker Jill Krowinski’s career path in the legislature. She started her legislative career while she was the executive director of Planned Parenthood. Since Planned Parenthood has one of the largest and most active PACs in the state, they are more than willing to let their employees take off as much time off to serve in the legislature, because it basically provides them with an unregistered lobbyist. Plus they can write off the salary as an expense out of the tax-deductible non-profit part of their organization, where donors names and amounts are undisclosed, instead of the PAC where everything is reportable.
Other organizations like the Howard Center are more than willing to allow an employee like Rep. Barbara Rachelson to take undefined leave because they have an exclusive contract with the State of Vermont to provide various services, especially surrounding the delivery of mental health services and are one of the largest recipients of the hard-to-track grants housed in the Agency of Human Services portfolio. One degree removed from these examples are others like Rep. Mike McCarthy who works for Sun Common, a solar panel installation company. While they may not have received funds directly from the State of Vermont (yet) their business model does rely heavily on some of the taxpayer-funded incentives provided through legislation to get people to buy their products and services. And if those incentives ever went away, their business would suffer. So these, and many other organizations like them, have an incentive to allow their employees to take leave for an extended period, because they know that their interests will be protected.
The move to professionalize the legislature and increase the pay while simultaneously keeping the long an unpredictable schedule serves as a way for many of the non-profits in VT who benefit from the status quo to cement their competitive advantage of placing their employees into the legislature, while also having the effect of starting to push the cost back on to the average taxpayer so that they can drop the legislators from their company health insurance plan and enroll them as part-time.
This is why Vermont Republicans have been fighting for a shorter session. First it truly broadens the opportunity for many more citizens to participate as a citizen legislator. While not every employer can agree to give their employee 90 days off, more companies can accommodate a shorter and well defined leave than are currently doing so under today’s arrangement. Everyone form House Republicans, up to the Governor’s office has been proposing the same solution. And, as is often the case, the Democrats have a solution that costs more money, and the Republican provide a solution that would cost less.
The author is an Essex Junction resident and chair of the Vermont Republican Party.