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Jim Kenyon: One vote matters, at least in the Vermont Statehouse

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/3/2020 11:11:28 PM
Modified: 3/3/2020 11:43:24 PM

In his first term as a Vermont legislator, Randall Szott cast a pivotal vote that will go down in state history. (Or at least in Statehouse annals.)

What side of history the Barnard Democrat falls on depends on your point of view. Did Szott betray his Democratic colleagues? Or did he help thwart passage of a proposed law that was more hype than substance?

Last month, Democrats in the Vermont House needed 100 votes to override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of a bill that would have created a mandatory paid family leave program.

They fell one vote shy, 99-51.

Szott (pronounced “zaught”) was among four Democrats and four independents to vote no, along with the entire Republican caucus. Most opponents, including the governor, argued that, with a price tag of nearly $30 million, the program was too costly.

Not Szott. He didn’t think the proposal went far enough and believed it was “structurally unsound.”

Under the program, workers could take off 12 weeks a year to care for a newborn child and eight weeks to care for an ill family member. It would have been funded by a payroll tax on workers, unless employers volunteered to offer the benefit.

Szott supported the measure when it originally passed the House in 2019. But the horse trading with the Senate had just begun.

By the time the bill returned to the House in January, it no longer included so-called temporary disability insurance, or TDI.

Szott, 48, acknowledged that TDI dramatically increased the cost of the program, but argued it was an essential component. He uses the example of a Vermonter who is battling a life-threatening illness. Under the final version that passed the House and Senate, “the person with cancer can’t take paid time off, but their spouse can,” Szott said.

Szott pointed out that in the eight other states where paid family leave has become law, “TDI is baked in because it’s such an important piece.”

Under Vermont’s proposal, TDI wouldn’t have been mandatory, but workers could have elected to “opt in.” Ahead of the Jan. 24 House vote, Randy George, owner of Red Hen Baking in Middlesex, wrote on Vermontbiz.com that a “bill that does not automatically include every working Vermonter is a bill that will exacerbate the inequalities we already suffer from in this state.”

Vermont Democrats made a “political decision, not a policy decision,” Szott told me. The strategy of Statehouse leaders seemed to be: “We’re going to ram this through because we need a victory, desperately,” he said.

After his vote to uphold the governor’s veto Feb. 5, Szott was quoted saying he told Democratic leaders that they “didn’t have the votes, and they didn’t listen.”

Which brings me to the heart of the matter. During his short time in Montpelier, Szott’s made it clear that he doesn’t care to be part of the Democratic establishment.

“Do I just do what (House) leadership wants me to do so in six years from now, I’ll have a plum committee assignment?” he asked during an interview in the Statehouse cafeteria. “I’m not playing the long game.”

Szott, who moved to Vermont in 2011, ran unopposed for the Windsor 4-1 seat, which includes Barnard, Pomfret, West Hartford and most of Quechee, in 2018. He replaced Sue Buckholz, a West Hartford Democrat, who didn’t seek reelection.

When I talked with Rebecca White, a Hartford Democrat, at the Statehouse, she described the Legislature as a “team sport.”

I’m not sure Szott sees it that way, which is probably why most Upper Valley Democratic lawmakers chose their words carefully when I brought him up in conversation. “It’s difficult to talk about a colleague,” said Sen. Alison Clarkson, of Woodstock.

“Many of us realized (the paid family leave bill) wasn’t perfect, but you can’t get it all at once,” said Rep. Jim Masland, of Thetford. “Sometimes, change has to occur incrementally.”

Rep. Sara Copeland Hanzas, of Bradford, has served in the Legislature since 2005. She talked with Szott before and after his vote upholding Scott’s veto.

Szott made a valid point about TDI, Copeland Hanzas said. But once family leave had passed into law, TDI could have been added, particularly if a Democrat wins this year’s governor’s race, she said. “I’ve been around here long enough to know that sometimes the landscape changes quickly,” she said.

Now that the bill has “crashed and burned,” it will be difficult to revisit for a few years, she said.

On his Twitter feed, Szott describes himself as a former merchant marine, chef and public librarian-turned-state legislator.

He’d like to remain in the Statehouse but said he can’t rule out Democratic leaders recruiting another candidate to oppose him in the primary.

After the governor’s veto was upheld, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, of South Hero, didn’t hide her disappointment. In November, “voters will have a choice to see who has taken every step they can to help build these policies that will create a stronger, healthier future for the state,” she told VtDigger.

After the vote, the governor sent a note to Szott. “I realize your vote wasn’t because you agreed with my position,” Scott wrote. “I also know how difficult this was, considering the incredible pressure from leadership to do otherwise.

“Thanks for having courage.”

On Tuesday, Szott gave a legislative update at Barnard Town Meeting. He didn’t mention the paid family leave vote, and neither did any of his constituents. (They were more concerned about education spending.)

Afterward, resident Sue Lewis praised Szott for his candor when responding to her questions since his election. “I don’t get canned answers,” she said.

The 125 or so residents broke into applause.

When he heads back to Montpelier next week, Szott probably shouldn’t expect similar treatment from his Democratic colleagues.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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