Behind the Scenes at the Statehouse
Three Bennington alumni and one staff member are shaping Vermont policy and Vermont futures. An inside view of how bills become law in Vermont, the issues driving these policymakers back to the table, and their take on legislative legacies by Shay Totten ’91, P’21
“Corridors of power” may conjure images of dimly lit House of Cards scenes where politicians are at the blunt end of verbal threats and decisions are made behind closed doors. But Vermont’s corridors of power are well-lit and open to lawmakers, local citizens, and tourists alike. As opposed to Washington, D.C. or larger state capitals, the Vermont State House is surprisingly accessible, as are the lawmakers. Anyone can walk into the building and sit in on a committee hearing or floor debate with very few questions asked. It is truly “The People’s House.”
Bennington alumni and staff—Rep. Cynthia Browning ’79 (D-Arlington), Rep. Selene Colburn ’91 (P/D-Burlington), Rep. Alice Miller ’60 (D-Shaftsbury), and Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington), director of public policy programs at the Elizabeth Coleman Center for the Advancement of Public Action—represent 2% of Vermont’s legislative body. Browning, Colburn, and Miller are three of 150 house members, while Campion is one of Vermont’s thirty senators. Like most, they have not come to the Golden Dome for the money (they all receive roughly $700 a week during session with per diem pay for meals and lodging), but instead to help shape the future of Vermont. Each has developed long and short legislative signatures with work on sometimes historic and groundbreaking legislation. We go behind the scenes at the statehouse, where they bring us into their committees and share the issues that matter most to them and their constituents.
Cynthia Browning ’79 (D-Bennington-4)
“I am independent. I work hard. I question and verify everything,” said Browning who not only serves at the statehouse but also directs the Battenkill Watershed Alliance and sits on her town’s Selectboard. But at the statehouse, this doctor of economics (PhD University of Michigan) sits on the house Ways and Means Committee, which establishes taxes and fees. “I don’t just take things at face value; I study. I listen to different voices and different perspectives. I try to come to consensus. I am always trying to figure out what is really going on, and not just what may be politically convenient.”
It is this independent streak that, at times, has frustrated her party. She has different ideas about how to fund core political initiatives. One of those was a state-based, single-payer system touted by then-Governor Peter Shumlin (D) in his 2010 election.
Browning, who stated her objection at the time, ruffled some political feathers. “I didn’t like Gov. Shumlin’s promise to pay for it without really knowing how he was going to pay for it.” But, she explains, “I was not, and am not, against single-payer health care, but I do think it’s hard, if not impossible financially, for a single state to do it. I think it’s a better idea for the full country. In my mind, though, it is policy malpractice to make promises we can’t keep.”
Browning has served in the House for 10 years, representing Arlington, Sandgate, Manchester, and parts of Sunderland. She first ran for Selectboard in 2004, after serving on Arlington’s Planning Commission for several years. Then, when a seat opened up in her legislative district, she was encouraged to run for office and now serves as both a member of the Selectboard and a legislator.
“When I moved back to Vermont and got involved in local government, I wanted to work on solving economic and environmental problems in my community,” Browning said. “For me, elective office has always been about serving the community I live in. Serving in the legislature has been both one of the most satisfying experiences in my life because I feel like I’m making a contribution and it has also been one of the most frustrating experiences in my life because so much of what is done is not founded in the realities of what I see.”
Rep. Alice Miller ’60 (D-Bennington-3)
For Miller, governing is problem solving with purpose. It is what has kept her coming back to Montpelier for 21 years. Miller began her public service on her town Selectboard in Shaftsbury in 1994 before becoming a legislator in 1996 after being asked by her local Democratic Town Committee to run for office.
“At that time, it was rare for a woman to run for the legislature,” she explains. Miller is well known for championing issues that impact working Vermonters, children, and families. Her work in the legislature representing their interests has been honored by Vermont Afterschool, which celebrated Miller with the inaugural Afterschool Hero Award last year, by Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, and the Sunrise Family Resource Center. What she has learned throughout her career is that most governing—and listening—happens in committee.
“In the committee process we listen to everybody on an issue. We take testimony every day, almost every minute of the day, and work around the clock to ensure that everyone has a voice before we make decisions.”
Miller’s first two sessions dealt with two heady and controversial topics: overhauling the state’s education funding system and enacting civil unions. The latter was a separate but equal approach to same-sex marriage in Vermont, but it laid the groundwork for Vermont to make history when it became the first state to adopt same-sex marriage by a vote of the Legislature (rather than a court
or executive order).
“It was probably the most exciting four years I’ve had,” she said. “I had a front row seat to history.”
Miller supported both bills. Her political courage had some drawbacks though, namely that she “had very tough races to run for the first few sessions.”
As a member of the House Education Committee, Miller was instrumental in developing a landmark education funding law that helped to level the school funding playing field across Vermont. Among other things, Act 60—the Equal Education Opportunity Act—made it so that local school taxes were no longer based on the value of a citizen’s property alone but also their income.
“I worked very hard to make that equal educational opportunity act pass because it helped people pay their property taxes, and if they lost their job, they wouldn’t get punished because their taxes were based on income.”
For Miller’s region in southwestern Vermont, the original passage of Act 60 delivered roughly $5 million in property tax relief to homeowners and renters, and redistributed state funding to support area schools.
In recent years, Miller has served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which develops the state’s annual budget. In the coming months, Miller will join lawmakers upstate concerned with a federal administration that is expected to make deep cuts to key programs like Medicaid, as well as funding for education and the environment. “We’re going to have to be creative going forward because we’re a small state and there’s not a lot of places for us to raise money.”
Although education is near and dear to her heart—and the committee she has served on for the majority of her tenure—Miller has also served on the Appropriations Committee where she worked to eliminate the food and clothing tax, as well as the machine inventory tax; and on the Fish and Wildlife Committee where she worked on legislation to end bear and deer baiting, streamlined among other committee work.
Selene Colburn ’91 (P/D-Chittenden-6-4)
Selene Colburn was elected to the state legislature in 2016, after serving on the Burlington City Council for two years, beginning in 2014.
Colburn, who grew up in Burlington, was very active in the city youth office under then-Mayor Bernie Sanders. Later, she would draw on that hands-on civic experience when she returned to Burlington after graduate school and dove back into local politics and advocacy. She started a nonprofit—Vermont Access to Reproductive Freedom—to equalize access to reproductive health services in Vermont, and to help women pay for abortions if they couldn’t afford them. In addition to supporting women’s reproductive rights, Colburn also became more vocal about the opioid crisis.
"I found myself lobbying people more and more on issues,” said Colburn. She worked on political campaigns and became very involved in the Progressive Party in Vermont. And while not exactly having major influence on candidates, she did find that her political work gave her access to politicians. She liked having the ability to get people with influence and power to listen. Eventually, she thought, “Why not cut out the middleman? I could be doing that!”
Colburn started first on the City Council in Burlington, and was elected to the state legislature last year. “I really believe that cities are amazing places to do progressive politics, because it’s the politics of the possible. The ability to make change is more nimble, but there were some issues where I reached a wall,” said Colburn. “And the issue that I most ran into a wall on was the opioid epidemic and trying to shift our understanding of substance abuse as policymakers.”
Lawmakers pick their choices of preferred committees, but in the House the Speaker of the House selects who sits on what committee. Colburn was picked to sit on the influential Judiciary Committee. One of her first orders of business was to introduce legislation that would extend the time that opiate addicts are provided treatment while incarcerated. Under current state policy, a person who is receiving outpatient treatment for opiate addiction will see that treatment cut off if they are incarcerated for more than 30 days. In January of this year, Colburn introduced H. 468, a bill that, if passed, would extend that timeframe from 30 to 120 days of incarceration.
“The state’s current approach makes no sense, from a treatment perspective. You wouldn’t stop giving a diabetic insulin if they were in jail for 30 days, so why would you for someone struggling with opiate addiction? It’s crazy,” Colburn says.
In a recent private meeting with the Vermont Commissioner of Corrections, Colburn was told that in response to her legislation the department planned to voluntarily increase the time limit to 90 days. It’s not unheard of for a bill, once it has a hearing in a committee and state officials are brought in to testify, that changes happen without the bill getting to the floor.
“In the meeting I asked, ‘So, you’re telling me that you’re going to change state policy.’ The Commissioner said yes. ‘And you’re going to find the money to pay for the treatment in the budget adjustment process?’ I asked. After some prodding she said yes. It was an odd feeling to be in that position of being able to simply get that high level of a commitment from a commissioner, and realize that it was because I had introduced a bill,” Colburn recalled. “But, it was kind of incredible at the same time.”
Colburn will wait and see if these changes are made, and what, if any, impact that may have on her proposed legislation.
Another of Colburn’s bills this session that generated media attention was H.333. The bill’s premise is simple: require all single-stall restrooms to be gender-neutral in buildings that are open to the public. The bill passed the House, 123-19, and will be taken up by the Senate in January 2018.
Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington), director of public policy programs at the Elizabeth Coleman Center for the Advancement of Public Action
In the Senate, a lawmaker serves on two committees. Senators are given their committee assignments by a three-person committee, called the Committee on Committees. It’s comprised of the Senate President Pro Tempore, the Lt. Governor, and one other senior member of the Senate. Campion is Vice Chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee and a member of the Finance Committee.
For many people who run for office, there’s often a tipping point. Campion’s was same-sex marriage. An environmentalist, Campion had always thought about running for office but he finally took the political leap when his local representatives voted against same-sex marriage in 2010.
In that first election, Campion defeated the well-known Republican incumbent, and became one of a roughly half dozen openly gay members of the Legislature. After two terms in the House, he won his Senate seat in 2014 with wide support.
In the past year, Campion’s leadership has been crucial on an issue that has had a major impact on his district—groundwater contamination by a local manufacturing plant.
During the height of the PFOA water contamination crisis in Bennington, Sen. Campion brought members of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee to a public hearing hosted at CAPA.
“It wasn’t enough to just talk about the problem, it was necessary for members of the committee to hear from the people directly affected. To hear about the empty water bottles piling up. To hear about the water that, even after being filtered, wasn’t trusted to be safe,” he said. “After that hearing, we went back to Montpelier and almost immediately passed S. 10, which is a bill that says if you pollute public waters, then you will be held financially responsible to hook homes up to municipal water, and more.”
Shortly after Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill into law, the state brokered a $20 million settlement from Saint Gobain for its role in polluting nearby drinking water.
“It’s not enough,” Campion explained, “but it’s a start. Given what our community is facing, we have to hope for more down the road. But, this bill will help other communities in the future.”
Campion said his work at CAPA, where he serves as the public policy director and teaches, and as a lawmaker inform each other in a myriad of ways, but fundamentally it comes down to finding universal solutions to concrete problems that can be replicated in other communities.
Campion has expanded his fight by working to take on toxic chemical reform this winter.
For several years now, under the leadership of CAPA public policy director and Vermont state senator Brian Campion, Bennington students eager to engage with policymaking and advocacy are invited into the legislative process working in jobs and internships at Vermont’s statehouse during the College’s winter Field Work Term. Some of their work has resulted in reforms that have impacted the lives of citizens living in and outside of Vermont. Recently, Vice magazine spotlighted Bennington’s student-led Incarceration Task Force for their role in advancing prison reform. In past years, Bennington interns have helped advanced transportation access; informed Vermont’s Child Safety Act with actionable recommendations; and have researched issues related to education, mental health, environmental protection, economic development, and clean water provisions among others.
2017 Emma Bushmann ’20 • Elizabeth Fox ’20 • Everett Haddard ’18
2015 Benjamin Ehlers ’17 • Alexander Formanek ’15 • Liam McRae ’18 • William Neale ’17 • John Lawson ’15 • Ben Simpson ’16
2013 Ray Stevens ’15