The Word in the House 5/9/2012 - Devotions

As I write this the 2012 Vermont legislative session has adjourned for the year, and I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks of catching up on home-work.  The last week of the session saw several late evenings spent on the floor with a lot of political maneuvering as amendments to bills were debated, adopted along party lines, or defeated on procedural grounds which are too complicated and diverse to explain.  At the end there was both satisfaction for victories as well as disappointment in defeats for everyone in one degree or another. 

One of the enjoyable experiences of being in the legislature is the devotional exercise that takes place at the beginning of each floor session immediately after the Speaker gavels the House to order.  Sometimes it is offered by visiting clergy, sometimes by a poet or other guest, and sometimes by one of the members of the House.  Sometimes the devotion is sung as it was on Saturday by Representative Kevin “Coach” Christie of Hartford.  This man has a booming bass voice with a fantastic range.  His inspirational rendition of “The Impossible Dream” from The Man of La Mancha brought the House to its feet when he finished. 

Earlier in the week Francis Brooks, the Sergeant at Arms of the Statehouse, offered this story. 
“One day a young girl was complaining to her mother about how she was having such a hard time.  She was very discouraged and didn’t know what to do, so she asked her mother for advice.  Her mother in answer put three pots of water on the stove to boil.  In one pot she put some carrots; in the second she put some eggs; in the third she put coffee grounds.  After a while she asked her daughter to tell her what she saw.  Her daughter said ‘Carrots, eggs and coffee. But what does this have to do with my problems?’ 

“Her mother told her to feel the carrots.  They were soft.  Then she told her daughter to break the egg.  It had become hard.  Finally she told her to smell and taste the coffee which had become aromatic and flavorful.  Her mother said, ‘All three encountered the same adversity, the boiling water.  The carrots went in hard and tough, but the boiling water made them softer, weaker.  The eggs went in fragile, but became hard inside.  Both were changed by the boiling water.  But the coffee, the coffee changed the water.  So, which are you, a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean?  When you encounter a problem, will you let it change you, or will you change your environment?’ ”

This story aptly illustrates a very traditional Vermont value: volunteerism.  Last year, between the Spring floods and tropical storm Irene, Vermont suffered some of the worst destruction it has ever seen.  But instead of being beaten down or mired in controversy, Vermonters all over the state came together to rebuild our infrastructure and come to the aid of our neighbors.  Likewise, facing enormous costs of relocating, rebuilding and assisting those who lost so much, Republican, Progressive, Democratic and independent legislators took to heart the state motto of Freedom and Unity, changed their environment, and passed legislation to quickly get Vermont back on its feet. 

So, whether you serve on a local board or in an elective office or with a community organization, or if you picked up trash on Greenup Day, or otherwise volunteer in our community, I’d like to take this opportunity to salute you and thank you for changing your environment.

Legislative Report 5/2/2012 - The Decision Making Process

The closing days of the legislative session tend to generate a lot of floor debate in both the House and the Senate as we have seen in the news lately.  Perhaps by the time this article is published, we will have completed our work in Montpelier and will have adjourned.  Chances are, though, that a few more days will be needed to wrap up the session.

One of the reasons why the proceedings seem to invite more debate is that the bills dealing with some of the stickier, more controversial issues are left until the end.  This stands to reason since those bills are the ones on which the committees take the most testimony and which engender the most discussion in the committees.  All members of a committee have the opportunity to express their opinion on every aspect of a bill, and the initial version of a bill is rarely the version that is voted out of committee.  Because each representative serves on only one committee, we depend on the committee reports to inform our own decisions on how to vote on bills.

Since hundreds of bills are introduced during the two-year period, some bills never get voted out of committee.  However, some get added to another bill dealing with a similar issue.  This happened with a bill I introduced concerning record keeping on the part of second-hand coin and jewelry dealers.  I introduced a bill last year to address the problem of burglaries and car break-ins so that police would have an easier time tracking down stolen property that was pawned off at these legitimate dealers.  While my bill was not acted on, a similar bill dealing with scrap metal dealers was approved.  With the help of Senators Richard Sears and Bill Cariss, elements of my bill were added to the scrap metal bill in the Senate.

One of the lessons I learned working in the legislature is that the most controversial issues may seem cut and dry, black and white, to proponents and opponents.  But once they are examined in detail with testimony from each side, with analyses from experts, and with serious discussion in committee, it becomes obvious that there are many shades of gray.  This is true of the immunization issue, the choices in dying issue, the CVPS/GMP merger, the pros and cons of different types of renewable energy, and many others.  Legislators hear from many interest groups as well as individuals urging us to vote one way or the other.  It is our job to weigh these interests based on as many facts as we can gather.  Political philosophies are certainly a factor, as are the interests of the communities we represent.  Sometimes we will come down on one side of the question; sometimes we will try to craft a compromise if it seems both sides have merit; and sometimes we will agree not to take any action if there is too much uncertainty. 

There is much left to consider and vote on this week, and it will not be unusual for our floor sessions to run late.  But democracy requires that every issue be open to debate and every legislator that wants to be heard is allowed to be heard.  When we are finished, we hopefully will have done well for the people of Vermont.