Some Vermonters Can't Afford to Serve in the "Citizen Legislature"
Mike McCarthy might look like one of the crowd when he’s sworn in to the Vermont House of Representatives on Wednesday morning, but a few key differences set the rookie lawmaker apart.
At 28 years old, the St. Albans Democrat is one of the legislature’s youngest members. He’s also likely to be one of its busiest: Outside of his 120-mile daily commute to and from Montpelier and the legislative work that brings him there, he’ll be scrambling to manage a family-owned bakery and take care of his 6-month-old daughter.
“It’s an insane thing for someone with the things I have going on in my life to serve,” McCarthy says.
He’s doing it, he says, to bring the voice of an average citizen to Vermont’s so-called “citizen legislature,” which he believes fails to reflect the demographic and economic diversity of the state.
“I feel like I don’t want to just be represented by a bunch of folks who haven’t worked in a long time,” McCarthy says.
Like 16 other states too small to demand a
year-round, professional legislature, Vermont relies upon the volunteer service of representatives willing to put their work and family lives on hold four to five months each year.
Critics say that’s not feasible for most Vermonters. The result, they argue, is an older, wealthier body of representatives comprised mostly of retirees and white-collar professionals.
“I think it looks like a bunch of people my parents’ age and older,” says Adam Howard, a 39-year-old former House Republican from Cambridge. “You just don’t get working family people down there. When you think about who demands the most from [state] services, they’re the least represented down there. That says a lot.”
Howard is one of several up-and-coming legislators who chose not to run for reelection last year, citing the competing demands of work and home. With two young daughters and a magazine publishing business, Howard says he simply couldn’t hack it anymore.
“It’s a real thrash,” he says. “And it keeps us from serving at the utmost of our capacity.”
Oliver Olsen, 36, found himself in a similar position last year when he decided to step down as the Republican representative from Jamaica. He had managed during the legislative session to scale back his hours running a consulting practice for Oracle. But with two young children at the time — his wife recently gave birth to a third — Olsen found it difficult to spend weeknights in Montpelier, two hours away from home.
“It’s an interesting dichotomy because on one hand, yes, we have a citizen legislature, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Olsen says. “It’s just, how the legislature is structured paradoxically makes it difficult for citizens to serve. It’s a four-month commitment that cuts into people’s lives.”
By law, businesses are required to grant employees unpaid leaves of absence during the legislative session. And lawmakers earn around $650 a week while they’re serving in Montpelier — plus compensation of $101 a night for lodging, $61 per day for meals and 56 cents per mile between their home and the capital.
But the demands of public service don’t stop with the end of the session.
“I would say in campaigning alone, I probably gave up $10,000 to $15,000 worth of business, which is as much as I’m going to make working down here this year,” says Democrat John Rodgers, a stone mason and excavator from Glover, who served eight years in the House and last year won a seat in the Senate.
Vermont’s legislative calendar was built to accommodate the state’s agrarian founders, who could sneak away from the farm during the slow days of winter. But modern-day seasonal workers like Rodgers can’t afford to take off any of the professional hats they wear.
So on snowy days during the session, Rodgers wakes up at 3:30 in the morning to plow 30 driveways before heading down to Montpelier.
“You just basically cram in the hours,” he says.
The tension between Vermont’s citizen legislature and its demands on officeholders is nothing new. In 1988, then-representative Megan Price lamented to the New York Times that, “the length of the sessions recently is a strain for anyone who is not retired or rich.”
In the same story, then-House Speaker Ralph Wright wondered whether Vermont’s system of governance by one’s peers would survive into the 21st century.
“I’m not optimistic that two decades from now, you’re going to find a citizen legislature in Vermont,” he said at the time.
Twenty-five years later, it’s still in place.
But skeptics like former House majority leader Lucy Leriche, a Democrat from Hardwick, wonder whether it’s sustainable. Leriche is particularly worried about the growing disparity between legislative pay and the cost of living.
“I think our citizen legislature is in jeopardy,” she says. “It’s getting harder and harder for the average Vermonter to serve. I see my colleagues leaving the legislature or deciding not to run at all because they can’t forgo the income of a regular job in order to do it.”
When Leriche announced she would not seek reelection last May, she was unequivocal about the reason: She needed to make more money. After four terms in the House, she felt she could no longer ask her partner to carry their household’s financial weight. So she took a contract with Green Mountain Power and, last week, landed a full-time gig in the Shumlin administration as deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce and Community Development, earning $92,560.
Leriche believes the solution is “a modest increase” in legislative pay. With the state budget tight and many Vermont families strapped for cash, Leriche acknowledges, “It’s a difficult environment to ask for more money, but I think it’s going to be necessary at some point to pay legislators a little more.”
Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), the House minority leader, agrees that there’s a problem, but he doesn’t think increased pay is the solution. Instead, he says, legislators should get their work done faster and limit themselves to debating fewer bills.
“The first week or two, we’re going to do not much but ceremonial stuff,” he says. “Until the budget comes out, there’s not much the committees are doing.”
“So much of what hits committee and hits the floor is just make-work silliness that keeps 90 percent of the body occupied while the other 10 percent do all the backroom heavy lifting,” he says. “If you had a shorter session and took up fewer bills, you’d have more people doing real work.”
Another option, says Olsen, might be to schedule some committee meetings at night or over the weekend — or use technology to allow members to meet from afar. Floor action, he says, could be limited to once every week or two.
One former House Republican, Jim Eckhardt of Chittenden, says he thinks the legislative calendar should take into account school vacations. During the single term he served, Eckhardt decided to take his family on out-of-state trips during his children’s February and April vacations.
He paid the price for that when, in the closing days of his reelection campaign last November, the Vermont Democratic House Campaign sent postcards to voters criticizing him for missing votes during those weeks.
“For someone who works so hard, to get blasted like that doesn’t set well,” says Eckhardt, who owns a home security business. “But I wasn’t going to put my kids on the back burner — or my wife.”
One result of the legislature’s family-unfriendly schedule, argues Rep. Sarah Buxton (D-Tunbridge), is a paucity of mothers with school-age children.
“We still have a gender divide in the Statehouse that isn’t men and women, but it’s mothers with children versus everybody else,” she says. “Those are voices we could and should have more of.”
Like McCarthy, Buxton is one of seven House members under the age of 35. She says her hectic legislative lifestyle has impacted her own decisions about whether to start a family. So far, she has not.
“Who’s the man who would be willing to let me continue to spend three nights a week away from home and care for an infant? That’s a pretty big question mark,” she says. “I do think that has influenced my decisions over the past several years about settling down and making family choices.”
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) agrees that it’s tough for legislators to balance work, home and political life. But, he contends, “It’s a problem that’s not unique to the legislature. It’s a problem that exists throughout our society.”
Smith knows a thing or two about juggling responsibilities. His wife is a doctor and he’s an attorney; they have two children in elementary school.
“I think if we didn’t have a lot of family around, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says. “For the last four years, I have frequently wondered whether I would run again because of the pressures I put not only on my wife, but on my kids.”
Nevertheless, Smith says he’s not convinced the legislature should make any changes to its schedule. For one thing, he thinks the number of competitive races in any given year shows that plenty of people still want to run.
He adds, “I actually think that our legislature does reflect Vermont to a large degree. Does it reflect it perfectly? Probably not, but I think it does to a large degree.”
And if the difficulties of serving lead members to retire, maybe that’s not such a bad thing, Smith suggests.
“It means that the composition of the legislature changes more frequently in Vermont than other places, because people don’t sort of get into the legislature and settle in for decades,” he says. “It can freshen up the place.”