With a $423 million budget deficit hanging over them, is it any wonder lawmakers chose this year to tackle an important civil-rights issue like marriage equality?
Yet, in the final moments of the legislative session, House Speaker Shap Smith only alluded to the historic vote that occurred one month earlier — an override of Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto of the same-sex marriage bill. A few other lawmakers did the same in their closing floor speeches. Gov. Douglas never mentioned it in his final remarks to lawmakers late Saturday night.
And why would he? It was only the seventh override of a gubernatorial veto in Vermont history.
The session was even tougher on first-year Rep. Bob South (D-St. Johnsbury). A union leader at Fairbanks Scales representing a conservative district, South reversed his vote on same-sex marriage and sided with 99 colleagues to override the governor’s veto. He also won the battle to keep the local prison open.
“Bob is a real breath of fresh air in the caucus,” said Speaker Smith. “He was right in the middle of it all session. I don’t know if I could have handled that pressure as a freshman legislator — it was a very tough session for him.”
South has been taken to task for his legislative actions by his hometown paper, the right-leaning Caledonian-Record, and by some conservative constituents. Even closer to home, the vote got him into hot water with his father-in-law, who happens to be the minister of South’s church. From the pulpit, the Reverend criticized his son-in-law for his vote.
“It has taken a long time to even start to heal those wounds,” said South, “but I do want to heal them.”
South said his wife and kids received as much flak as he did, and that weighs heavily on this newbie lawmaker. Despite rumors to the contrary, they are sticking together as a family.
“That’s the part I was not prepared to deal with,” said South. “I knew I would be making tough decisions that people would not like, but when it comes down to this vote, I just didn’t realize how hard it would be for them. And for that I really blame myself. My wife and kids didn’t run for office; I did. And how it affected them bothers me; it still keeps me up at night.”
Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Chittenden/Grand Isle) voted in favor of same-sex marriage, just as he voted for civil unions nine years ago. He took a lot of heat from his church — he, too, was denounced from the pulpit.
Things were different this time, though, according to Mazza. While he concedes some parishioners are very angry with him, he said he’s heard from many others who said he did the right thing.
“They haven’t thrown me out yet, and I’m trying hard to still belong,” Mazza joked.
The gay-friendly national organization of Log Cabin Republicans praised the eight Vermont Republicans who voted for the bill. At a recent D.C. gathering, in fact, they gave Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) a standing ovation. She even got to sit at the head table with the event’s keynote speaker Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain.
The GOP’s future is in recognizing individual rights for everyone, noted Donahue.
Those eight Vermont Republicans are well aware that national notoriety won’t make it any easier for them to get reelected in 2010.
Same-sex marriage supporters say they will work hard for those lawmakers facing electoral troubles.
Of course, in 2010, same-sex marriage may no longer be such a hot-button issue. By then, it’s likely to be the law of the land in Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. Still no word on whether New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, will sign the measure approved by lawmakers in the neighboring Granite State.
“Our vote certainly made it easier for those states,” said Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland). He’s worried that voters will overlook his work on updating Vermont’s sex-offender laws, among other key pieces of legislation, to focus on his support for same-sex marriage.
“When you meet people on the street, they aren’t as interested in talking about the budget — they want to talk to me about my vote on same-sex marriage,” said Mullin. “The question is if by the next election they’ll look over my whole record.”
Veto Victory — With a thunderstorm raging, lawmakers passed a $4.5 billion budget last Saturday night by a 91-52 margin. Will the guv veto the budget, prompting the legislature to reconvene and attempt to override it? Or will a budget deal be worked out behind closed doors, with a special session called to make it official?
House leaders say they have 99 votes in hand if an override showdown occurs. They need 100 if all 150 members are present. Several Democrats, Independents and Progressives who voted against the budget say they would vote to override a Douglas veto. Same goes in the Senate, where the vote was 18-10 in favor, with five Dems voting against the bill.
This show of House power almost ensures the guv has to come to the table or have a second veto overridden — and two in one session would surely be a major embarrassment. Douglas is used to having his way with legislative Democrats, so it must be a new position for him to be in — and an uncomfortable one, too.
Going into the next round of talks, a major sticking point for the Douglas team is the constraints it faces in finding labor-related savings. The guv’s guys also have problems with some of the taxes the legislature’s budget levies on wealthier Vermonters.
Lawmakers want Douglas to spread the pain to political appointees, not just union staff. If Douglas can’t find $1.3 million in savings from private contracts and $13.4 million in staff savings, lawmakers want to see a cost-cutting plan presented to the Joint Fiscal Committee by June 10, as well as a detailed list of the layoffs. The JFC is a powerful, 10-person panel that makes money decisions while the legislature is on break.
That might be an intrusion on the guv’s authority, noted Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who has been in on the budget talks. Labor savings plans are not normally approved by the legislature.
“The governor has moved and showed a willingness to move on a couple of very difficult issues for him,” said the lite guv, noting that less than $20 million seems to separate the two sides in an overall $4.5 billion budget.
“It would be important to come to an agreement today because the issues are not going to get easier moving forward,” noted Dubie.
Democratic lawmakers say they’ve gone as far as they can without losing support in their caucuses. Case in point: Prior to Saturday’s vote, about 15 to 20 members of the Democratic caucus withheld support for leadership’s spending plan as they believed the combo of cuts and taxes hit the poor harder than the wealthy.
The budget includes $15 million in cuts to Medicaid programs, and another $8.4 million in cuts to the Agency of Human Services that affect the blind, disabled, elderly and the poor.
In all, lawmakers cut $423 million in spending to get through the next two years, said Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington), a member of the final budget conference committee. To do that they only raised $23.1 million in new revenue, and will work to collect $4.8 million in back taxes.
To say the legislature didn’t make tough choices isn’t accurate, said Rep. Mike Fisher (D-Lincoln), who says he almost didn’t support the final budget. “To those who say there are no tough cuts included in this budget,” he notes, “all I can say is they don’t know people affected by these cuts.”
Catholic Block — Just days after the Vermont Workers Center organized a successful health-care rally in Montpelier, it received some very bad news.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington decided to withhold an annual $30,000 donation from the center, most of which had been helping to finance VWC’s health-care campaign. Is the diocese strapped as a result of defending pedophile priests? Nope.
“We were told by the Vermont diocese the funding would be pulled because we would not agree to put limits on a woman’s right to choose as a part of our ‘Health Care is a Human Right’ campaign,” said James Haslam, the center’s director and lead organizer.
Haslam and several VWC members met with diocese officials to plead their case. No dice. He then sent a May 6 email announcing the news, and is trying to find 200 people to raise $250 apiece to make up the difference.
“A lot of people have been stopping by to voice their support and drop off a check,” said Haslam. “There’s been lots of sympathy and solidarity.”
The $30,000 comes from the national Catholic Campaign for Human Development, but it has to be OK’d by the local diocese. In past years, the Vermont diocese has always given the green light, added Haslam.
This isn’t the first time the local diocese has yanked funds from a local, progressive nonprofit. In 2004, the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign lost a two-year grant worth $25,000 because its parent organization — the Peace & Justice Center — posted a link on the PJC website to a women’s rally in DC, said Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, a Burlington city councilor and the former VLWC director.
A liaison to the charity saw the link and reported it, since it appeared to violate a clause in the grant saying the VLWC could not take a position that contradicted the church’s pro-life stance.
“It was a huge blow,” said Mulvaney-Stanak.
Going forward, Haslam said, the VWC can reapply for funds from the foundation to support its work on the economy, workers’ rights and livable wages — just not health care.
“But we’re trying to figure out how to start raising more money from members rather than foundations,” said Haslam. “That would help avoid these kinds of problems in the future.”
The topic? The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, a sweeping energy and climate-change bill that Pres. Obama hopes to get through Congress this session.
Obama met with 35 Democratic members of Congress to talk about its progress. Welch serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee and three of its subcommittees.
The climate-change legislation includes a Welch-authored bill modeled on Vermont’s approach to energy efficiency. Welch’s Retrofit for Energy and Environmental Performance program would retrofit millions of homes and buildings to achieve a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency.
The president has spoken many times of the need for efficiency measures, a viable way for some regions of the country to wean themselves from fossil fuels.
“He was very explicit, too, about the jobs potential with efficiency, because it’s about local jobs — it’s hiring carpenters, electricians and plumbers,” said Welch. “You can’t export those jobs.”
Well, not yet.
Gov. Douglas helped move a couch when he visited the White House. Think Welch helped change a few light bulbs?
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