By Don Keelan
The 2019 Vermont Legislative session came to a close. The House of Representatives closed down on Friday, May 24, and the Senate ended the following Wednesday — it had no choice, the House members had all gone home. So now the 180 members of both houses are back in their districts, celebrating on what must have been, to them, a spectacular session of accomplishments.
One such accomplishment was that we now have a statewide ban on plastic bags, straws and cups, if signed into law by the governor. Just think, Vermont may now tell the world that the dumping of plastics in the world’s waterways, oceans and landfills will no longer occur. Why? because the Vermont Legislature spent considerable time debating how to correct this pollutant.
The removal of plastic bags and straws was so important to the 180 members that it trumped addressing a critical state issue, the out-migration of thousands of young adults from Vermont since 2010. Maybe next year the drain of Vermont’s young people might be addressed?
Another pressing issue for the members was that the state needed to change how we celebrate Christopher Columbus. It was found to be imperative that the date used to celebrate the 15th century explorer, Oct. 12, had to be permanently removed. Instead, after much debate and hearings, Oct. 12 would henceforth be known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Vermont. Wonderful!
This critical change took up so much time that it became necessary to set aside any early work on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, as well as adopting some form of compensated family leave. By time the House and Senate got back to work on these signature issues, the clock just ran out and they closed up shop.
Both legislative bodies felt that this was the year to have a discussion on whether reparations should be made for the impact of slavery that had existed 150 years ago. Testimony was taken, discussions held, and any decisions on compensation for the time being, postponed. It was also important that the Vermont Constitution be changed to remove any reference to slavery.
One would have thought that with the session’s time constraints, the issue of the opioid epidemic and how to contain it would command all available time. This is especially so when there are over 7,000 Vermonters (mostly young adults) in treatment. Just imagine if we could have them free of addiction and in the workplace — where there is a critical need for employees throughout the state.
What was the centerpiece of this year’s session was, of course, to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational and retail purposes. For a majority of the members, this issue had been foremost in their minds. The debate consumed so much of the session’s time. It was during that period that the legislators found out that the usage of marijuana could have a serious impact on policing, children and mental well-being.
By the end of the session, the issue was set aside for another year. Unfortunately, the time it took did not allow for any meaningful discussion on how to replace the 10,000 housing units the state needs or any meaningful way to reduce the state’s multi-billion dollar underfunded state employee pension plan.
It will be eight months before the Legislature reconvenes. I would hope the members think long and hard on what a spectacular disaster this session turned out to be.
What is even more disturbing is that the members, who had a super-majority, had agreed in January to work together on resolving the critical issues impacting Vermont. Somewhere over the past four months they lost their way. They could not comprehend the difference between what might be important and what is critical. Hopefully, they will have the time now to reflect. The 2019 session was not remarkable; it was regrettable.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.