Vermont Senate gives tentative OK to creating a state truth and reconciliation commission

Published: 5/4/2022 10:45:50 PM
Modified: 5/4/2022 10:44:19 PM

MONTPELIER — The Senate advanced a bill Tuesday that would create a truth and reconciliation commission, overriding some senators’ objections that the proposal constituted bureaucratic overreach and a potential misuse of millions of dollars in public funds.

The commission would study the impact of racism, discrimination and eugenics in Vermont laws and suggest ways the state government could repair those harms.

The bill, H.96, builds upon last year’s formal apology for state-sanctioned eugenics, said Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, on the Senate floor. In a joint resolution presented in a Statehouse ceremony last October, lawmakers apologized for a 1931 law that legalized eugenics in Vermont through the use of involuntary sterilization.

The eugenics program targeted people who were Indigenous, mixed-race, disabled or poor. The apology’s authors also noted that a range of other discriminatory state policies had caused harm.

That resolution passed with unanimous support in both chambers. In it, the General Assembly also called for further legislative action “to address the continuing impact impact of State-sanctioned eugenics polices and related practices of disenfranchisement, ethnocide, and genocide.”

One year later, H.96 lays out a multi-step process to create the Vermont Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It would create a five-member appointment panel composed of the state’s director of racial equity; the director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission; and one member each selected by the House speaker, the Senate Committee on Committees and the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.

The five-member panel would appoint seven people to a selection panel. The selection panel would appoint three commissioners, who could hire four full-time staff and additional contractors as they see fit.

The commission is tasked with creating committees, to which it may appoint up to 30 additional people. Committee members would not be state employees, but would be paid a stipend of up to $1,000 per year.

According to the bill, the commission selection process would run until 2023, and the commission would disband in July 2026.

“This is not meant to be a permanent fixture of state government,” Ram Hinsdale said on the floor.

The commission is projected to cost $748,000 in fiscal year 2023 and $1.3 million each year after that, according to the Joint Fiscal Office. Over the life of the commission, it would cost an estimated $4.5 million.

Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, voiced opposition to the bill, calling the proposed body a “49-member colossus.” He would rather that money be put toward solving the child care crisis or on schools, he said.

“I don’t think this is a good use of money or a wise use of time,” Brock said.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said while the state should address discrimination, he saw this bill as “bureaucratic overreach.”

“If one reads deeply into the language of the bill itself, this is a commission that could very well get out of control in a hurry, based on politics,” Benning said.

Benning also suggested the commission would propel Vermont toward a policy offering reparations, a provision that H.96 does not include.

The bill could “eventually lay the groundwork to put us all into a very difficult political position of whether certain citizens should be paid sums of money from the pockets of other citizens who never had any intention of acting with discrimination,” Benning said on the Senate floor.

Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, voiced his support and suggested that senators who opposed the bill did so because they were afraid of what the commission might find.

“There’s something in our past that we’re afraid to hear about,” MacDonald said. “And the best way to not have to hear about it is to kill this bill.”

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Montpelier, pushed back. Cummings argued that senators needed to be able to weigh the specific mechanics of the bill, separate from larger questions about reparations.

“I have never been afraid to hear, or to speak. And I am probably the only one in this body who’s actually lived with a family of color in a ghetto and been the only white face at African American night at the local church,” Cummings said on the Senate floor. “I will stand on my record on justice. But I don’t like having it cast that this vote is a vote for or against reparations or a vote for or against acknowledging.”

On the floor, Ram Hinsdale called the appropriation a “small investment” that could never make up for the damages caused by state policies.

“At the end of the day, some would argue it’s too small” to assess the full scope of the harm, from both government action and government inaction, she said.

The multi-step selection process was meant to center the people hurt by discriminatory state policies, particularly eugenics, Ram Hinsdale said.

The intent was to avoid having state officials choose the commissioners, she said, “so we put a layer in between, to create a selection panel.”

Senate lawmakers made only minor changes to the version approved by the House in late March. The Senate version passed 22-7 in a roll call vote. Sens. Benning; Brock; Brian Collamore, R-Rutland; Russ Ingalls, R-Essex/Orleans; Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle; Corey Parent, R-Franklin; and Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans voted no. Sen. Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, while present earlier during Tuesday’s floor session, was absent for the vote.

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