Op Ed From the Burlington Free Press
The hallmark of Vermont’s Legislature is its accessibility to the citizens of the state of Vermont. Each year, thousands of Vermonters flock to the Statehouse to advocate on issues about which they are concerned. They sit in on committee hearings, follow the debate on the House floor, or simply spend a few minutes meeting with their citizen legislator — someone who they often know well through the community. Every interaction makes a difference as the laws are being developed.
Citizen participation, a true touchstone of our democracy, was alive and well in 2012.
Even prior to the legislative session, legislators from around the state were deeply engaged in the needs of Vermont’s communities following Tropical Storm Irene and the spring floods. As our state came together to rebuild, the voices of Vermonters were crucial to the cleanup efforts. When the session neared, the communities hardest hit by Irene and the spring floods made their needs known, and just two days into the session the House passed a bill to provide property tax relief to those most affected by the storms. State government heard the calls and responded swiftly.
When Tropical Storm Irene washed away the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, our state’s mental health system was devastated. One of the most important challenges facing the Legislature when it reconvened this January was to redesign that system, a task that had long eluded state government.
Sometimes a catalyst is needed to bring all sides of an issue to the table. In this case it was Irene. People from around the state advocated their support for a community based mental health system more closely integrated with our current health care structure. Legislators and the administration heard their voices and passed legislation that will put Vermont on a path toward a community based system of care that will allow patients to receive better care, closer to home, when they need it.
For years, Vermonters have advocated for a system that makes health care both more accessible and affordable. This has been a true grassroots effort. Through public hearings, letters to legislators, and community forums held across the state, Vermonters asked the Legislature to take action. Last year, the Legislature responded by passing the Green Mountain Care legislation that is meant to slow the growth in the cost of health care and make coverage more affordable. This year, we responded by passing legislation to implement a health care exchange, allowing middle class Vermonters access to affordable care, and freeing up employers to focus on running a business rather than a benefits program. There is more work to do and the grassroots organizing on this issue will continue to inform the decisions the Legislature makes going forward.
Grass-roots efforts drove the discussions around a number of new issues this year. For years, the number of Vermonters who are immunized has declined. This year, the Legislature considered efforts to address this issue. While Vermonters share the desire to ensure that our citizens are protected from horrible diseases like polio and the whooping cough, they differ on how to best achieve that goal. This year, grass-roots activists made a real impact on that debate and I am confident that we have taken a measured step forward to protect our children.
Sometimes the debate in the Legislature is not about what action it should take on, rather what is the proper role of the Legislature on a given issue. This was true of the debate about the proper way for the CVPS/GMP merger to return $21 million of value to ratepayers. While we can all agree that it is an important issue that warrants deliberation, after much debate both in committee and on the House floor, the House decided the best entity to weigh in on this issue is the Public Service Board.
In the end, the legislation considered this year was shaped by the dialogues between citizens and their citizen legislature. Phone calls and emails, meetings and public hearings, rallies and chance conversations at the corner store, all had a valuable impact on the action the Legislature took. It made the bills we passed stronger, fairer and tripartisan.