by Don Keelan
If ever leadership was absent during a Vermont Legislative session, it was in 2023. Leadership was essential when over one-third of the body was new to being legislators.
I can only go back to 1986 for a basis of reference. Still, I do not recall any session of the Legislature having so many bills introduced and adopted as this recent one when there are so few State funds to pay for the bills’ underlying cost.
The adoption of Family Leave, Child Care, Universal School meals, Affordable Heat, Homeless sheltering, Mental Health, and Housing were only a few of the many bills that were advanced to the Governor for his signature.
Governor Phil Scott’s signature was not forthcoming on many of the bills. Although he agrees that there is a great need for many of the bills’ purposes, he is responsible for reconciling how such legislation will be paid for without stripping untold dollars from Vermont residents and businesses.
The Legislature leaders knew this and had a duty to inform their new members; there is a limit on how much money the State can raise in taxes, so priorities need to be set. This was not the case.
The new members and many non-leaders knew that 2023 was the year to open the floodgates. They had control of the House and Senate and a super-majority when it came to overriding the Governor’s veto.
The secret is out about Vermont. It is no longer just a pristine state with rolling hills, quaint villages, farms, and thousands of miles of unpaved roads. It is a state with an opioid epidemic, homelessness and housing crises, gun violence in once peaceful towns, and a lack of employees to fill over 20,000 open positions, especially in medical/mental health care, first responders, education, and many other sectors. For decades, this Vermont underbelly has been denied.
How the legislature conducted itself is analogous to a house on fire, with the owner walking around the burning structure accompanied by a landscape architect to decide where to place the pergola. The leadership was responsible for addressing one or two significant issues facing the State, not caveating to the whims of new members.
Effective leadership takes the most serious issues and evaluates how the State might address them with its limited financial resources and limited personnel to manage any proposed solutions. One does this by establishing priorities. Yet, there was an abject failure in Montpelier: the leaders placated their members by adopting legislation covering every issue confronting the State.
We often hear the adage concerning the illegal drug issue: we cannot police or arrest our way out of the problem. Similarly, we cannot legislate or tax our way out of all the difficulties confronting Vermont that have been neglected and ignored.
We need policing when dealing with drug purveyors, and we must have laws and state spending to bring solutions to the abovementioned issues. But, we do not need the legislature’s leaders unloading all issues onto the governor’s desk. Passing the buck is not leadership.
The legislature’s leaders should have educated, compromised, and persuaded, if necessary, its members that it is only possible to address some issues impacting Vermont. Tough choices must be made; their constituents expect leaders to make them.
Instead, they decided that every issue had to be addressed and funded regardless of from where the funding came. Vermont does not have the capability to print money to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in new State spending, albeit some in Montpelier think otherwise.
The author is a U.S. Marine (retired), CPA, and columnist living in Arlington, VT.