By Don Keelan
Next January, a sea of change will occur in the Vermont Legislature. The most recent news: 10 out of 30 senators gave notice that they will not seek re-election, and 41 members of a 150-member House also announced that they too would not seek office. All gave many reasons for leaving Montpelier.
Over the years I have had issues with the Vermont Legislature regarding specific pieces of legislation. One area where I have no issue is my gratitude to those who serve our state in Montpelier and their home districts. Just being in Montpelier in the dead of winter is to be commended.
Our legislature is no longer a body of folks from the agricultural sector, meeting at a time of year when farms were, for the most part, “resting.” Would more folks be willing to serve if the Legislature met not from January to May but from March to June?
With such a massive change in leadership and members about to occur, maybe it is time to rethink how the Legislature is elected, operates, and is compensated.
The Vermont Legislature profoundly impacts our personal lives, businesses and state operations in the short term and for years to come. Therefore, it is critical to have the best possible Vermonters in place, crafting the future laws of our state.
These best Vermonters should not have to be independently wealthy to serve, nor should they struggle with child-care or housing once in Montpelier. It should not be a financial hardship to serve in the Legislature. Let’s start with changing compensation.
The present compensation for representatives and senators is $774 per week for 18 weeks of the session (there is no compensation for Town Meeting Week.) This amount does not compensate for all the time legislators must devote to interacting with constituents, other legislators, and those impacted by bills under consideration. Why not double the amount paid; maybe more folks will step up to run for office?
Compensation should include a generous allowance for daycare costs and health insurance. Today, members receive free dental; let’s broaden the benefits package.
Let’s change the service term from two to four years and limit the number of years one can serve to 12 years. The position was never meant to be a career nor the citadel for those “on a power trip.”
One turn-off in developing a willingness to serve is that legislators must be beholden to the Legislature leadership. If one fails to do so, they don’t expect to be placed on a committee of choice, or worse, have critical suggestions or proposed legislation ignored. I suggest that all committee chairs and appointments be voted upon by the entire legislative body and not dictated by a handful of long-serving, influential members.
The legislature should limit the number of weeks they are in session to no more than 12. This can be accomplished by a full legislature meeting in December to agree on a priority of bills to consider — an agenda, if you will. It is insane to review over 750 to 1,000 proposed bills; what a waste of time and effort.
For transparency, monthly, each legislator should provide their constituents with a summary of their meetings with lobbyists and influencers representing special interest groups during the prior month. It would be nice to know who are legislators are really representing.
If the Vermont Legislature is to represent the people of Vermont fully, one should not have to be retired, living off a trust fund, be independently wealthy, or self-employed to serve.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.