Legislators affirmed state’s social liberalism
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | May 16,2013
Toby Talbot / AP Photo
Sen. Margaret “Peg” Flory and her colleagues are pleased with some actions taken in the legislative session. Related story, A6.
MONTPELIER — Gubernatorial signatures in the coming days will make Vermont one of three states to allow physician-assisted death, one of four to grant driving privileges to migrant workers, one of 10 to have legalized hemp, and one of 16 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
In a state that passed the first laws to condemn slavery and embrace same-sex partnerships, the expansion of individual rights in the 2013 legislative session has cemented Vermont’s status as perhaps the most socially liberal place in the country.
But so far at least, the Vermont Democrats running the show in Montpelier seem content to save their liberalism for the social arena. And progressive lawmakers are beginning to wonder whether one-party rule will ever translate into new public investments to bolster human services, combat climate change, or expand access to health care.
“The primary focus for progressives, whether you’re a large ‘P’ or a small ‘p,’ is economic issues,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat from Chittenden County. “And in that arena, the bodies were relatively conservative.”
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell devoted his adjournment speech Tuesday night to extolling “social righteousness” in Montpelier, “where we do everything we can to make individuals’ lives easier, and also to recognize we are all different in one way or another.”
Campbell noted legislation passed earlier this year in which lawmakers sought to force national companies with employees in Vermont — Walmart, for example — to provide benefits to the same-sex spouses of gay workers here. When it came to expanding the rights of migrant farm workers, Campbell said, the Legislature again showed its willingness to tackle issues of social justice with state legislation.
“And I know it was a tough one for a lot of us, and we might have had some differences of opinion,” Campbell said. “But in the end … we provided an opportunity to the people who have come to this country to do some of the hardest labor this state or any other has to offer.”
Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth carried a list with him Tuesday of the Legislature’s accomplishments on the social front, which he said includes the equal-pay legislation signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin Monday.
“To me this was a blockbuster year,” Baruth said.
The Chittenden County Democrat last year was among the chief critics of a Senate leadership that hadn’t allowed socially divisive things like the end-of-life bill to reach the floor.
“A number of these things we weren’t even able to have a debate on last year,” Baruth said Tuesday. “But the socially liberal half of the Senate this year was able to get a lot of what it has been tying to do for the last 10 years.”
Advances for liberal causes, however, were confined almost exclusively to the social arena.
Efforts to hold harmless the lower-income Vermonters facing higher out-of-pocket costs for health insurance next year failed to gain traction. Proposed investments in home weatherization programs and renewable energy subsidies — the key elements of a climate-change agenda touted by Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith earlier this year — were whittled almost to nothing.
All those things, as well as the $17 million in childcare subsidies that were to remove barriers to prosperity for working class mothers, were gutted by the no-new-taxes credo adopted by the Democrats who reign unchallenged in the capital.
In a session-ending speech generally devoted to highlighting the accomplishments of the past four months, Smith made an unconventional decision to highlight shortcomings as well.
“While we would all like to live in a perfect world, we live in a real world,” Smith said.
He gave token nods to $2 million or so allocated to weatherization programs and renewable energy subsidies — a fraction of what budget writers had sought at the outset of the 2013 session, and nothing approaching the $25 million or so the climate-change community said would be needed to make significant inroads on thermal efficiency.
But Smith said “We know we have to make a bigger difference.” And he suggested that when it comes to taxpayer investments in public infrastructure and energy policy, next year might be different.
“Because we have not moved forward enough this year does not mean we cannot move forward next year,” Smith said.
Finding the money, however, will likely mean raising new revenue. Shumlin’s attempts this year at revenue-neutral reallocations — he sought to redirect $17 million away from the earned income tax credit — were wildly unpopular.
Even if House and Senate Democrats opt not to raise new revenue, a looming debate over the tax code could force Shumlin, Smith and Campbell into the battle over fiscal policy that liberal members of the party have been courting.
Smith and Campbell have vowed to deliver to the governor’s desk next year a revenue-neutral taxcode overhaul that is the embodiment of progressive ideals, taking money from the rich and redistributing it to the middle class. That it didn’t become law this year is due only to vehement opposition from Shumlin, who has spent the last three years protecting the wealthiest residents of the state from tax proposals authored by members of his own party.
If 2013 was the year Democrats united behind social issues, then perhaps 2014 will be the one in which they splinter over fiscal ones.