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Washington-Chittenden: Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington & Buels Gore

First Thoughts on the Close of the Biennium

May 9, 2016


State House in the Gloaming

The 2016 Legislative Session ended late on Friday, May 6 — the earliest end during the time I’ve served. How do I know? My anniversary with Liz is May 8, and except for when it has fallen on a Sunday, like this year, I’ve spent my anniversary in the State House. Very romantic!

As ends of sessions go, this one was fairly benign in that the big bills — the budget and the revenue bills — were relatively close in conception and execution upon passage from each body, and so the conference committees were fairly amicable. A contentious issue that was rectified was the expansion of the lottery and, in another bill, fantasy sports. In each case, the Senate proposed a great expansion of gambling in Vermont and we fought to make sure it did not happen without a lot of public input. Think of all the public comment on marijuana, multiply it by zero, and you would have the sum of the time spent discussing gambling in the State House. To many of us, gambling is far more insidious than legalizing marijuana. If we need more revenue from that source, or from alcohol, we need to have a larger and louder conversation. It was amazing to me that two important bills, the budget and one on consumer protection, were put at risk because these detrimental bills were inserted during the rush at the end of the year.

Another reason for an amicable end to the session (which, by the way, will not be reflected in the upcoming campaigns) was the decision made by each body to train our vision and work on policies already in place, and to avoid taking on new and controversial policies. Many of the money and policy committees rejected the governor’s suggestions from January and concentrated on funding our government without “one-time” monies, and on making sure our funding sources were strengthened. This plain jane governing did not prevent us from passing some important bills — which we will explain in our end of session reports — but it did create a welcome caution to some issues.

One issue that got caught in that caution was the legalization of marijuana. To be straightforward, I support the legalization of cannabis for homegrown and commercial purposes, but I do not support “just passing something” and fixing it later. We have asked Vermonters to take a leap of faith on a number of key issues and while we have succeeded at times, we have also not finished fixing things like the software for Vermont Health Connect and we have taken on an important stance against opioid abuse. For marijuana, I will continue to advocate for a strong control and education system, followed by a legal and available banking system and vigorous enforcement. I don’t believe the Senate version of S.241 approached those standards. The House considered legalization and then decriminalization of a small amount of homegrown. These proposals did not pass.

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The Working, The Working, Just the Working Life

April 29, 2016


The following is an opinion piece written by Rep. Mary Hooper from Montpelier. Her view strikes a balance between the protections needed for workers in traditional work settings and flexibility desired by people who choose to be independent contractors. 

Employment is an agreement between businesses and workers. Business receives labor, workers receive a paycheck and certain rights and protections. This bargain has value and costs and therein lies the century old tension in the workplace.

With competition in the marketplace, businesses have an interest in reducing the costs of employment. Society has an interest in assuring the costs of employment are shared fairly. The Legislature’s job is finding the right balance.

Since the great recession, the number of contingent workers has risen dramatically in the United States. By some estimates, temporary and part time workers and independent contractors now make up 40% of the work force. Independent contractors are a growing part of this group. They do not receive the benefits associated with employment, in particular workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance.

About 100 years ago, the first Vermont workers’ compensation statute was enacted in response to the epidemic of silicosis in the granite industry and over the fierce opposition of business. 

Today it is shocking to read about the debate. Granite shed owners openly spoke of the Italian workers as being naturally inclined to filth and squalor causing what we now know is silicosis.

This was the beginning of modern labor law in Vermont. We have added unemployment insurance, minimum wage, occupational health and safety, and most recently earned leave. Each of these are steps in the effort to balance the rights and obligations of workers and employers to each other. Each step was a result of give and take.

It costs money to provide these protections and understandably there is an effort to limit the cost. The problem is that when workers are pushed, or encouraged to not be employees, an uneven playing field is created. Employers who pay for workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance are at a competitive disadvantage to employers who save upwards of 30% on their labor costs by considering employees as independent contractors.

If workers are not covered by workers compensation or unemployment insurance and they can not work, the individual suffers and society picks up the cost.

Today we hear that, in the “new economy,” people want to be independent contractors because of their lifestyle choices. Twenty-five years ago, we heard that moms wanted to stay home and do piece work on knitting machines, earning less than minimum wage, so they could be with their kids. One hundred years ago, it was asserted that personal hygiene caused silicosis.

The House Committee on Commerce has worked for two years to find the balance between people who really are independent businesses and those who really are employees. The Committee sought to remove confusion in our labor law created by Court decisions and to establish one definition of employee in the workers compensation and unemployment insurance laws. Seemingly simple goals, but because of the complexity of how people work, they are very hard to accomplish.  

Thanks to the leadership of the House Commerce Committee and an openness to working with a multitude of people and interests I think a middle ground has been found. A definition, or test, of independent contractor was created which addresses the complexity of the modern workplace. It assures that workers can have the independence the may desire, while assuring that the rights and protections of employees remain in place. It addresses the uncertainty created by court decisions and eliminates multiple definitions of employee. I think we found a way to have the right balance. 

Still Shakespeare After All These Years

April 25, 2016



I read this piece on the State House floor on April 22, 2016, as my annual devotional (usually dedicated to Wm. Shakespeare).

Tomorrow, April 23, is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. All around the world, Shakespeare has been celebrated — a tour of papers related to him and his works found itself in Middlebury this past winter.

When I was in college, during the early 1980s, I thought I was as smart as can be, and I spent many an hour, inebriated or not, arguing about how much the human race had evolved in their thinking, and arguing that we were so much better off than we were, even as recently as 400 years ago. To me, the characters in Shakespeare were not terribly complex, and, as thick as Shakespeare’s poetry was to me, I certainly did not appreciate that, in fact, Shakespeare’s characters were intensely human, reacted in human ways, and were, in fact, much more three dimensional than I could possibly give them credit for at that age.

Over time, as I aged, I read essays on Shakespeare’s works, and grew to love how he was able to shape his characters in a way that was, in the words of Professor Harold Bloom, the “invention of the human.” What he meant was, “the invention of the human in print.” To me, with the help of essayists such as Bloom and Harold Goddard and others, I learned that Shakespeare’s characters were as rich as any characters created in the 18th, or 19th, or 20th century. In fact, I learned, or was reminded, that I wasn’t as smart as I wanted to be, and that humans have not, truly, evolved or changed very much over the last 400 years. We still have the same traits, the same faults, the same foibles, as humans from all ages. We choose love, or greed, or hatred, and we harbor murderous or exploitive or altruistic thoughts and feelings as we have for millenia. Read more