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A conversation with Phil Baruth, expected to be the new Vermont Senate Pro-Tem

Vermont state Senator Phil Baruth
Wayne Fawbush
Vermont Legislature
Vermont state Senator Phil Baruth

Vermont Senate Democrats met over the weekend and chose a new Pro-Tem to replace outgoing Democrat Becca Balint, the first woman to represent the state in the U.S. House.

The caucus unanimously chose Phil Baruth as Pro-Tem. While not formalized until January, because Democrats hold the majority, the nomination assures his elevation to the position. Baruth is an English professor at UVM who was elected in 2010. Speaking with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley, Baruth explained why he wants to be the Senate Pro-Tem.

There's a lot of responsibility. There's a lot of cat herding. But I love the Vermont Senate, the institution of it. And we're living in dicey times and everybody has to protect democracy where and when they can. It happens that this institution is going to be in my hands and I'm going to do everything I can to strengthen it along with, you know, just the general principles of democracy, voting for everybody, making it easier rather than harder.

As pro-tem, you will have a say in what legislation will be put before the state Senate. Have you determined what pieces of legislation will be priorities?

Well, we're still getting to know one another. We had a third of our Senate turn over. You know the same kind of retirement pattern that you've seen in every business post-pandemic, all around you, we're experiencing that as well. So we're getting to know each other. We're sharing our priorities. But there are some things that aren't going to be a choice. So for instance, we passed a piece of legislation called the Global Warming Solutions Act. And one of the things it does is to make the state liable in court if we don't meet certain emissions targets. So there's a clock running that we set on ourselves. So we're going to be producing major climate legislation in order to try to meet those targets. So that's one example of something over which we don't have a lot of choice.

And I understand even with some of the legislation you've got proposed, there's still concerns you won't meet some of those deadlines.

Right. So you know legislating is hard. And, you know, the founding fathers nationally and our Vermont, you know, founders made it difficult on purpose. So you never know if a bill is going to pass because there are a thousand more ways to kill it than there are to have it succeed. But we're going to do our best and hope that our governor, who is a Republican and has shown some unwillingness to sign major climate legislation, we're hoping we can convince him and work with the administration.

Along those lines. I've got actually a couple of questions based on a couple of the things that you've just mentioned. You mentioned losing a third of the incumbent senators from the past biennium. How will that change the initial dynamics in the chamber as the new senators basically get their feet wet and, you know, kind of learn what's happening in the Senate and how the Senate works?

Well, the class that we have coming in is very diverse, younger, more diverse. That makes us stronger in every way. So I'm delighted about it. But you know we're going to work hard to make sure that the incoming people feel welcome, have them feel empowered as quickly as possible, and that they have a voice in the legislation that's coming before the chamber. So I'm going to be meeting every week with the incoming ten, I think of them as the Big 10, and try my best to listen to their concerns and make sure they understand the arcane rules that the Senate uses sometimes.

You also mentioned Governor Scott, who is a Republican. But now both the House and the Senate has a supermajority, a veto proof majority. How do you think that might change the priorities or more so the debate that goes on in the Senate?

Well, I, myself, I don't think it's going to change things too much. People hear the word supermajority and they assume that you're then invulnerable and you can just crash around and do whatever you want. But we have 23 votes in the Senate if and when every single senator in our caucus votes one way. But we are a huge tent. We have people who are very liberal. We have people who are very conservative. And they reflect our constituencies. So on any given issue, once it's not a general question, once it's a specific policy question, some of those 23 are off the bus. And then you don't have a supermajority and you're back to counting and agonizing about whether you can override a veto, whether you can suspend the rules, etc. So I'm encouraging people to have a little bit of humility and remember that whenever somebody puts the word super into the equation other people start looking for kryptonite. So a supermajority can trip itself up pretty quickly.

Phil Baruth, you have an incoming lieutenant governor who's been lieutenant governor before. But there's been a two-year gap since David Zuckerman was in that role. How much have you worked directly with him in the past and what will be your role working with him when you become the pro tem?

David and I have known each other a long, long time. We've worked together in many different ways. So I'm excited that he's coming back. We have a Senate that's a third brand new and a lot of learning for those people to do. So I think it's wonderful that we have an experienced lieutenant governor to preside over the chamber. David and Dick Mazza, who is our third member of the Committee on Committees, and I make up the third. Well, that's very, confusing. We have something called the Committee on Committees that makes all the major decisions. David is now one member of that. Dick Mazza was elected to be the third member and I'm automatically on that. So the three of us have to work together to assign people their committee slots and other things. So David and I will work together every day come January.

Phil, the House Speaker Jill Krowinski is expected to be reelected to that post in January also. How aligned are you with House priorities and working with Jill Krowinski in the House?

Well, I would put it like this. We always work together. We have to work together with the House. And, you know, we do our best to make it as smooth as possible. At the end of the day we are separate chambers and you know we have legitimate policy differences. But the beauty is that there's a process for ironing those out called conference committees. And so when they come up with a different approach than we do, we appoint a committee and that committee goes and does the hard work and we emerge with one shared piece of legislation. So I'm excited to work with Jill. She's incredibly smart and she's given great leadership to her folks. So I think together we can do big things.

I know that the vote was only taken over the weekend, but do you have any plans to meet with Speaker Krowinski and Governor Scott in the near future before the session starts?

Well, absolutely. Jill and I have already been, begun meeting and we'll continue to do that in the run up. With the governor you kind of wait for the governor to want to meet with you. So, you know, I do hope to meet with him, but probably at his suggestion.

And Phil Baruth, you have a full-time job because the Vermont legislature is a part time legislature. How is this going to impact your teaching at UVM because being pro-tem, you're going to have a lot more responsibilities on you?

Well, the way I've always done it is I do three-quarters of my teaching in the fall when the legislature is not in session. And then I do a quarter of it come the spring on Mondays when the legislature doesn't meet. And so that's worked out very well now for 12 years. But I will have more to do all the way around now. No way around that. So hopefully I have enough bandwidth and enough experience and I'll continue to prioritize my students when I'm in the classroom and my constituents when I'm in the Statehouse.

And you'll actually have an office in the Statehouse now.

For the first time! I think people think somehow that we have cushy lives down there, but I've never had a staff person. I've never had an office. Closest to an office that any of us have is our desk on the Senate floor. That's all we can call our own in the building. But now I will have the pro-tem office.

The Vermont legislature convenes its new biennium on January 4.

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