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A recent announcement to close three rural Vermont State College campuses (since withdrawn, for now) raises the question, “does Chittenden County govern the rest of Vermont?”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.

Categories: politics

7 replies »

  1. I am relatively new to Vermont, and am trying to understand the history of how this imbalance came about, but it looks like the 2012 reapportionment may have had something to do with it. Somehow we need to restore equitable representation to the rest of the state before Chittenden County voters become too powerful to overcome. Unfortunately, I think more needs to be done than just asking people to choose their representatives wisely. The noise from Democrats and Progressives nationwide is deafening, and the rest of us have to be heard above it in a way that resonates with voters, and makes them want to get involved and make a difference, while they still can.

  2. I have said the fix should be the Vt. Senate should be set up using the U.S. Senates model, two senators per county. Fourteen Counties, two senators per county = twenty eight………

    • Gary, agreed (and I am a Chittenden resident), but unfortunately, the 1960’s Earl Warren SCOTUS ruled that state legislative districts chambers must be roughly equal in population. Reynolds v. Sims, Baker v. Carr, I’m not saying that these cases were correctly decided, but they have not been overturned. What makes the situation more egregious is that Chittenden is one senate district, rather than six separate districts, or at least three, which tends to prevent election of minority candidates. But for this, Chittenden’s representation in the Senate might be more “diverse.” I don’t think this situation has been legally challenged, and if it were, it would most likely survive.

  3. We need to look at some form of “electoral college” adapted to appropriating voting power to regions/towns not on population density. Asking voters to choose wisely is not likely to accomplish the goal given that political bias seems to be a regional issue!

  4. Chittenden County has been growing in power ever since 1964; before that the Vermont legislature had “one representative per town and two senators per county, the rural areas dominated and set the agenda much to the frustration of urban areas, particularly Chittenden County. In 1964, the US Supreme Court forced “one-man, one-vote” redistricting on Vermont, giving cities an equitable share of votes in both houses.” The U.S. would provide the same, or worse imbalance, i.e., legislative power in CA and NY if we abolished the electoral college. Our only option is to break up representation in Chittenden County and vote carefully…

  5. I think too many people, including those living in low population areas, as well as possibly the ones on the Supreme Court in the 1960’s, apparently do not understand the reasoning behind the electoral college. Recently, a family member, who is by no means stupid, told me he thought it was so the votes could be more easily counted before the age of electronics. To use an old expression, one vote per person is like two wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for dinner. The sheep will never win, and will likely be served for dinner.

    A first task may be to educate more voters on why the system we currently have is unfair. That will not be easy, and I don’t know how it can best be accomplished.

    Also, I wonder what clause, if any, in the U.S. Constitution allows the federal government to determine how individual states manage their voting regulations. If more Supreme Court Justices are eventually appointed who rule according to what is actually written in the Constitution, instead of what they would like it to say, we might stand a chance of overturning the earlier decision.

  6. Too bad Chittenden can’t be its own state. I know many New York residents have felt the same about NYC for a long time.

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