Work in the Vermont Legislature, especially for the first few weeks of the year and especially for first-time lawmakers, may be a mix of what you know and what you learn in committee.
The 2019 legislative session rang in last Wednesday, and it was akin to the first few days of school, with speeches by the governor and others, selfies with old friends and ice-breaking conversations with lawmakers in nearby seats.
“It’s very much like the first day of school. Everyone’s shaking hands and hugging and all that,” said Rep. Matt Hill, D-Wolcott.
One of the first orders of business was assigning House members to committees, where they will spend the majority of their time between now and Town Meeting Day in March, looking at bills that enter and exit — originate or end — in their little rooms.
Here’s a peek at local representatives and their committees, and what issues they are likely to tackle this session.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, was assigned to the House Committee on Energy and Technology, her fifth committee in 12 years in the Legislature.
She’s been around the Statehouse a decade longer than the committee has. Formed in the last biennium, the committee, according to the Legislature’s website, “considers matters relating to energy, including the regulation of power generation, transmission facilities, energy efficiency, natural gas facilities, and siting of energy facilities; utilities, including rates and quality of service; telecommunications, siting of telecommunications facilities, the buildout of cellular and broadband services, and rates and quality of service; and the state's information technology systems.”
Scheuermann said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson determined, “correctly in my view,” that such a standing committee was needed. Historically, the issues her committee will address were the jurisdiction of other committees.
“As such, energy and technology items didn’t receive the proper attention,” she said.
She was eager to join the new committee because she thinks one of the key issues facing Stowe and the state is “high-quality, reliable” cellphone and broadband coverage.
“It is absolutely critical to our state’s economic growth to put into place policies that will ensure coverage is developed and deployed broadly, efficiently and effectively,” Scheuermann said.
In the last biennium, Scheuermann was on the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. Before that, she was on the Commerce and Economic Development Committee for six years, and on House Judiciary before that, and House Transportation before that.
Scheuermann said Tuesday she remembers an old newspaper story talking about her and her family’s “athletic exploits,” in which her mother said Scheuermann was the most versatile athlete in the family.
“I’ve looked fondly back at that as I’ve been assigned to various committees during my service here,” she said, smiling. “Maybe, just maybe, I am the most versatile legislator.”
Rep. Dave Yacovone, D-Morristown, hit the ground running. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he’s already at work on the state budget.
The committee, as its name suggests, deals with anything that requires appropriating money from the state treasury.
Specifically, Yacovone has been tasked with the Medicaid, health care and housing portions of the state budget.
“Simply put, our goal is to balance the budget,” Yacovone said. “Any bill that might impact appropriations from state government, including minimum wage and marijuana, will come through our committee.”
Last week, Yacovone put his thoughts on what he thinks is the No. 1 issue: the plight of Vermont’s small towns, with schools and small stores in danger of closing, and an overall lack of broadband service.
“I think small-town living in Vermont is at great peril,” Yacovone said. “It feels like we’re fast approaching two Vermonts. A Chittenden County Vermont, where there’s economic vitality, and small-town Vermont where things are, frankly, stagnant and at risk. How would anyone ever be able to sell a family home in our rural towns with no school, with no broadband? Good luck.
“We’ve got to have a conversation about making all of Vermont strong. Yes, there will be many issues we face, from health care to minimum wage to marijuana to clean waters, climate change, but the quality of life in rural Vermont has to be front and center this year in the Statehouse.”
Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, is back in the Statehouse after being sidelined for two years, and on the same Energy and Technology committee that didn’t exist in his last stint.
It’s an assignment right up his professional alley — he used to head up the Washington Electric Cooperative before retiring. He, like Scheuermann and district partner Yacovone, prioritizes broadband service this session, although he is also focused on energy and climate change issues the committee will address.
During a debate in her 2018 election campaign, Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, all but apologized for returning again and again to what she sees as a top issue for Vermonters: access to affordable, quality health care.
She got her dream assignment last week when House Speaker Mitzi Johnson placed her on the House Health Care Committee.
“It does seem that there is an interest in rural health care on the committee,” Rogers said this week.
First, though, Rogers said committee chair Bill Lippert is making sure committee members meet some of the people and organizations involved in Vermont’s health care system, and learn more about how the system works.
Rep. Matt Hill, D-Wolcott, is back on the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, but he “successfully passed off the duties of clerk” to a fellow lawmaker. He said he’ll use that time to concentrate on topics of interest.
While some committees have yet to see a bill, Hill said Commerce got the very first bill of the new legislative session — this year’s H.1 — a law regarding no-compete clauses in unemployment contracts.
Hill said his committee is likely to talk at length about workforce development, and will pick up some of the work it did on how data brokers use Vermonters’ personal information.
Any bill aimed at creating a marijuana marketplace “may do what they call a flyby” through the commerce committee, but Hill said it won’t likely spend much time there.
Hill’s district partner, Rep. Dan Noyes, D-Wolcott, said the House Committee on Human Services, to which the second-term lawmaker returns, may see the beginnings of an eventual constitutional amendment.
The committee is looking at codifying a woman’s right to choose, something that doesn’t exist on the books in left-leaning Vermont.
Other topics might include changing the way Vermont funds its Meals on Wheels program. He thinks the program should be looked at as a health care issue, not a matter of simple nutrition and sustenance, and hopes to use Medicare money to bolster its budget.
The committee might also look to create an ombudsman to help look into the state’s foster care system. Last year, the state passed a law that creates a “reasonable and prudent parent standard” that helps foster parents avoid legal liability for the decisions they make in raising their foster children.
“We’ll be looking at ways to help our foster care system, and strengthen the rights of foster parents,” Noyes said.