It is hard to believe as I write this that we are already three weeks into the new legislative biennium. There is very little “action” to report.
The glorious thing about a citizen legislature is that we come from all walks of life, bringing diverse backgrounds to the job. The flip side, of course, is that we bring no expertise to most of the subjects that will come before us.
I have been re-appointed to the Health Care Committee, where six of the 11 members are new to the committee, and five are first-time legislators. There is a whole lot of information for them to absorb about the many components and issues that make up our health care system and that are in the jurisdiction of our committee.
Most of our time thus far has been spent on hearing overviews from the many players in that system. There has been little time spent on the House floor, since bills are not yet being voted out of any committees.
We are also just beginning to get to know one another. We will be spending a lot of time together these next four months. The bulk of the work of the legislature takes place in the various committees as they hear testimony and consider new bills.
So what kinds of folks make up the committee that will make major decisions about the evolution of health care reform in Vermont? I think that learning just a small amount about them helps gain a valuable perspective on how our democracy functions.
Our returning chair is Bill Lippert, a Democrat and 22-year member from Hinesburg. He is the former Executive Director of the Counseling Services of Addison County and a founder of a foundation for GBLT Vermonters.
The other two returning committee members are Tim Briglin, a Democrat from Thetford, and Doug Gage, a Republican from Rutland.
Tim was new last term and is the managing partner at Tuckerman Capital, a firm he co-founded in 2001 to invest in and grow small manufacturing businesses. Doug is starting his third term and is a tractor-trailer driver for Coca-Cola.
Sarah Copeland-Hanzas was majority leader for the Democrats last session, and now returns to the Health Care Committee, where she served since 2005. She is from Bradford, and is a science teacher as well as owner of local cafe.
Mike Hebert is a Republican from Vernon who has served on the Natural Resources Committee since 2010, and was moved to Health Care this year. He has background in the health care field in emergency medical systems.
Our five brand new members include a recent college graduate, Ben Jickling, who is an Independent from Brookfield and who works for the local golf course and for a youth mentoring program.
Annmarie Christensen is a Democrat from Weathersfield who has a background in journalism and communications in global public health, most recently at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.
Lori Houghton is also a Democrat, from Essex Junction, whose background is as a sales operations specialist with LexisNexis, the online legal publishing firm.
Betsy Dunn of Essex Junction, a Democrat, is a labor and delivery nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center, where she has also served the union as chief steward.
Brian Cicio of Burlington, a Progressive, is a clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice.
I round off our crew, and am the second longest serving House member on the committee, starting my 8th term. I was greatly honored this year to have been asked to serve as vice-chair.
We range in age from the 20s to 60s, but only two of us – me and Ben (who grew up working on his grandparents’ sheep farm in Chelsea) -- are native Vermonters.
During this past campaign season, now-Governor Phil Scott promoted the idea of a legislature that served only 10 weeks, restricting its focus to the annual state budget and saving on costs.
As much as I respect him and his views, I strongly disagree on this issue, because it would radically shift the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.
It will take the rest of this month to learn the subjects at hand, and February into March will give a fairly narrow window to take on some of the significant subjects that demand attention. To name just a few: the crisis in our mental health system; oversight of the next stages of the “All Payer Model” for financing health care; identifying what we are going to do about Vermont Health Connect; addressing how Vermont will respond to the as-yet-unknown actions taken on the federal level, particularly their potential financial impact on our small state.
As we get to April, there will be little time for the committee to get further work done, as we will be on the House floor for debates and votes as bills emerge from committees; we will also need to focus on responding to bills that come from the Senate.
The decisions we make, flawed as they sometimes are, arise after hours of public testimony and public access to the process. They emerge through a process of discussion and often, compromise. They are aired in two bodies, both House and Senate.
The alternative would be that these decisions would be made by a single person, with input from appointed staff instead of elected representatives.
As clumsy and time-consuming and in-expert as it may be, I think the legislative process is vital and needs to be protected.
Thank you for the honor of representing you. Please contact me with your questions and your opinions. You can reach me by message at home at 485-6431, at the statehouse at 828-2228, or at this email at email@example.com