Vermont Senate Pro Tem Discusses Legislative Session
The Vermont Legislature adjourned the first half of the biennium session on May 21st after passing a $7.3 billion state budget. It was a completely virtual session in which legislators had to determine how to allocate millions of dollars in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Senate committee chairs gathered on the statehouse steps on Wednesday to talk about the session. Later, Pro Tem Becca Balint, a Democrat from Brattleboro, spoke with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley about the most important bills considered during the session.
“It really ran the gamut from some, you know, more technical bills that people were working on to really high profile bills like the, what we call the universal mail-out voting bill S.15 which the governor be signing into law. It is a bill that really reflects the work that we did during the pandemic making sure people had access to the ballot. And I know my chamber is incredibly proud of that work because of states work in the opposite direction to really make it harder for people to cast their ballot. It's something that really has bipartisan support here in Vermont to make sure that everyone continues to have easy access to the ballot. So that that was a big, a big win. Certainly expansion of broadband. We have lots of pockets of Vermont still don't have adequate connectivity. Certainly saw that in regard to commerce and business over the last decade. But certainly during the pandemic we saw that with telehealth and with schooling. And so that's been a real source of frustration for many governors here in Vermont not to have the amount of federal dollars that we've needed to make a difference. And now we feel like we might actually have that money. And that's really exciting.”
Bradley: “Becca Balint a couple things you've mentioned are on my list of things to talk about. And one is the universal mail-out voting bill. Republican Governor Phil Scott, when you take a look at the voting rights bill that you passed, he actually wanted to see it expanded to local and primary elections. But at this point there's uncertainty as to if that would actually work and you guys are going to study how feasible that is. What do you anticipate from the study group?”
Balint: “it becomes more complicated for some of those other elections because the primary elections are run by the party and they're not run by the state. So that gets complicated. But the other piece of this, and it's sort of the sacred, I was going to say, the sacred cow or the third rail of Vermont politics is talking about Town Meeting. Right. And so when you talk about local elections in Vermont if you move to expanding that mail-out style voting does that signal the end to Town Meeting? Of people getting together in the Grange Hall, at the school gymnasium to vote on local issues and I think people are very concerned that any move towards that mail-out voting, mail out ballot provision for local elections may mean the end of Town Meeting as we know it. And I think a lot of Vermonters are concerned about that. Which goes back to what I think is critical for us right now in our democracy is we have to continue to talk to each other, to physically talk to each other. And I think we are trying to balance both of these things is making sure that voices are heard and that we don't continue to silo our society and that people have stopped engaging with each other on a personal level.”
Pat Bradley: “Moving on, you mentioned the expansion of broadband and having the federal COVID funds really help with that. The COVID funds were for use not just for broadband but for a lot of other items. How satisfied are you with how the legislature distributed the federal COVID funds in the overall budget?”
Pro Tem Balint: “I'm really proud of it, Pat, I really am. We really worked closely with the governor to try to arrive at something that was reflective of our priorities and the administration's priorities. So we have huge investments in broadband but also in housing, massive investments in housing. We have a housing shortage across Vermont. Investment in childcare. Investment in climate action and water quality issues. And so there were so many large topics around which we did agree. You know, we spent a little bit more than half of the ARPA or rather, we appropriated, we directed about half of the funds and still are holding off on dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars until we have a chance to see are we going to need to invest more specifically in broadband or in housing. We have this opportunity with this massive infusion of cash. We want to make sure we spend it right. And so there was a lot of overlap with the governor's priorities and we also brought him along a little bit to say, you know, we can also use some of this money to invest in people, to invest in workforce development, to invest in our Vermont State Colleges, and that we can wait on some of the more infrastructure bricks and mortar type expenses until, hopefully knock on wood, we get an infrastructure bill coming from the federal government in the fall. So I feel good about the work that we did.”
Pat Bradley: “There was another item that came up less than a month before the end of the session and it was the status of the state pension fund. And as I understand it there's a task force that's going to be taking a look at this. Isn't a time for action on that rather than more study as to what to do about it?”
Pro Tem Becca Balint: “I agree with you it is time to act. This has been several decades in the making. This has been a challenging thorny issue for many people to deal with. What I would say is different this time is that you've got a taskforce dedicated to making the recommendations for how we're going to make it solvent. They're going to come back to the legislature in January with recommendations. It is a bipartisan task force. It has members of the administration and from the treasurer's office. We feel like we have the right people at the table. And I think what people are forgetting about all of this is you are talking about people looking at their retirement and whether they will be taken care of in their old age. That's what we're talking about here. And this conversation cannot then be rushed after decades of people not dealing with it. And so I have faith that we are going to make some difficult decisions in the next few months. And we're also putting into place an oversight committee on the investments to make sure that they're being invested wisely. And so I understand the concern about you know the sort of the language that's often used in the legislature of ‘aw you're kicking the can down the road’. And I would say that's not what we're doing at all. We're getting the right people finally to the table and saying this is going to quickly become insolvent if we don't make those changes. And we matched up the task force with a $150 million investment upfront to say the two have to go hand in hand. So I understand the concerns but I also think retirees are planning on that money and they're counting on us getting it right and not rushing something through.”
Pat Bradley: “Becca Balint the legislature really had to focus on fiscal issues and a lot of structural issues. Things like the expansion of broadband and as you mentioned with the ARPA money housing, climate change child care and things like that. But you also did some work on some social justice bills such as declaring racism a public health emergency. With the practical matters like broadband and the budget and dealing with ARPA why work on the social justice items?”
Becca Balint: “It’s such a great question and I it’s a valid question to ask. And so what you may not know about me Pat is that for many years I taught history. I have a masters in history. And I know that if we do not deal with our past both as a nation and as a state we’re not going to be able to chart the future that we want. And so when you look at one particular piece that we were looking at which was finally having an apology for the eugenics movement in Vermont, you know, a bill that was important not just to the Native American community in Vermont but also to French Canadians, for people who grew up in poverty, from people who were labeled, quote-unquote as feeble minded, this was a horrible, horrible chapter in Vermont's history that people have not wanted to reckon with. And I feel like healing is an important piece of charting a way forward not just for individuals but for towns and for our legislature. And so we had this really poignant thing happen. There was a house member in the legislature this year whose ancestor was in the legislature when they signed off on the eugenics movement. So to have her say I am part of this legacy and it is time for us to apologize for those wrongs. And so as a historian and as a policymaker, I think the two have to go hand in hand.”
Bradley: “Becca, what is your assessment of having everything completely virtual? And then are there elements of that that you'd like to see maintained actually?”
Becca Balint: “Absolutely. And that's something I've been talking about a lot with my senators and with the Speaker of the House, that we know that so many Vermonters were able to participate in their government in a different way because Zoom made that possible and YouTube made that possible. And so we do think, as they say, you can't put the genie back in the bottle and that's a good thing for people like me who live in the southern part of the state. So it takes two hours to get to Montpelier from my house and then another two hours to get back home again. So so many of my constituents couldn't really participate fully within the Statehouse. So we do think going forward there's going to be access to the committee hearings. We're piloting some microphones that that swivel with the people who are who are talking so that when you're on Zoom, you might not see everybody in a box, but you'll see the person speaking. And we're hoping that folks can continue to tune in from their homes, those folks who can't get to the Peoples' House. Although, you know, Vermonters love their capital. It's one of the most open public buildings in the state. And in terms of looking at Capitol buildings across the nation it is the one of the most accessible. You can go into any committee room at any time to watch any hearing. And we want to make sure that continues.”
Pat Bradley: “So Becca, one of the last questions I think I have is, you know, politics never really ends. A lot of speculation going on whether Senator Leahy will retire. But his tradition is to wait until basically November or December to announce his intentions. But that I've seen, not just Vermont media, some of the national media speculating whether he's going to run. If he doesn't run, who will run? If he doesn't run, how it's going to shuffle in Vermont and if it does shuffle who might run and who might not? I believe there was a VTDigger article that said If he doesn't and if it shuffles you might be interested in running for a congressional seat. Is that true?”
Balint: “Yes, it's definitely something that I'm thinking about. I want to be really, really clear that if Senator Leahy wants to continue to run for office, and you've got Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders all doing a great job. And we see that in the amount of federal dollars we were able to get to do so much of our agenda this session. And so I would never run against one of the incumbents. They are all doing a wonderful job for our state. If there is an opening it's something I would very seriously consider. I feel called to this work as a as a woman, as an openly gay person, as a child of an immigrant. I absolutely know that conversations change when you have a variety of people in the seats looking at policy. And so I'd have to have a lot of conversations with my family still and but yeah, I would definitely think about it. Absolutely.”
Balint has been discussing with the House Speaker a possible veto session and anticipates it will occur the third week in June.