Report from the General Assembly

Below is the current letter from Rep. John O’Brien to his constituents in Tunbridge and Royalton.

Follow this link to view or download the letter in PDF format.

Mid-Biennium Report, January 1st, 2020

Happy New Year, Constituents!

It’s halftime in Montpelier.  With the second year of the two-year term starting on January 7th, the so-called Biennium is at its midpoint.  As a freshman legislator, this is a good spot to reflect on last year’s session, and also ask, “How can I be a better State Representative?”

Last year, like most of the rookie legislators, I arrived full of energy and almost instantly was overwhelmed by how much there was to learn.  Starting with names. I can remember faces, but I’m dreadful at remembering names. It’s important to know who’s who in the State House, and that means knowing the names of about 300 people.  There are 150 House Reps and 30 State Senators. There are the professionals who make the State House go—the Sergeant at Arms, the Capitol Police, Legislative Council (the lawyers who draft the bills, the administrators, IT staff), cafeteria workers, custodians.  There are lobbyists and advocates who more or less live in the State House for five months. There are point people from the State Agencies who are there every day to testify or track bills. I had nine classmates in elementary school, 25 in high school—the State House feels like a very big high school.

Given my background and how rural Tunbridge and Royalton are, it didn’t come as a surprise that I was assigned to the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, chaired by Carolyn Partridge of Windham, an eleven term veteran who knows who’s who and what’s what.  Our committee was made up of eight Reps—five Democrats, two Republicans, and one Independent. What was most refreshing about our committee was the attitude: we were there for problem-solving, not party politics. Every bill that we passed out of committee was by a unanimous vote.  What did we pass out? A bill to ban household use of neonicotinoids (a class of pesticides that are devastating pollinators); a bill regulating the “wild west” of hemp production and sales; a bill to create a study committee to explore the idea of enrolling Vermont’s State Forests in the California Carbon Market (we would be the first in the country to do this).  We also dove into wetlands, raw milk, logger safety, eco-systems services, on-farm slaughter, GMO seeds, and cell-cultured meat.

When bills are voted out of committee and come to the House floor for debate and a vote, party politics plays a bigger role.  Last year, almost all floor votes were either unanimous (bills that everybody could get behind) or followed party lines. Given that the Democrats hold a sizable majority, I can’t remember a single bill that was passed or rejected by one or two votes.  Bills that successfully were voted out of the House were far from successfully becoming laws: first, they had to pass the Senate, which rarely saw eye-to-eye with the House, and then, if that hurdle was cleared, they needed the Governor’s OK. With the House and Senate being controlled by Democrats, and the Governor being Republican, generally the bills that unanimously flew through the two chambers were the ones to get the Governor’s signature.

Last year, there was considerable tension between the House and Senate, which I learned was both traditional and personality-driven.  The two chambers just don’t like each other. Once, on the House floor, when I was speaking, on behalf of our Committee, in favor of re-upping the Rozo McLaughlin Farm-to-School Program, I asked, “Madame Speaker, may I quote from the Senator from Addison County?”  A gasp sucked through the entire House at my blunder. Speaker of the House, Mitzi Johnson, glared at me with alarm, then bemusement. She replied, “We’ll call it a freshman mistake, but you may.” The quote was benign and my offense was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, but the message was clear:  As a House member, never give the Senate credit.

Looking ahead to this year, what can I do better?  Improved communication is my number one goal. I aim to keep the voters of Royalton and Tunbridge informed about what’s going on in the State House, and what I’m working on, with monthly reports, available on social media and in the Town Offices.  One of the most important things a State Rep can do is connect people. Reps can’t magically make laws or right wrongs, but they do get to know people who can make a difference; that could be someone in a State Agency, or an advocate from a non-profit, or a Committee Chair.

My other goal is civics education.  From school kids to seniors, it’s important to know what State government does and can do.  Our General Assembly is wonderfully accessible and transparent. Not only are the House and Senate open to the public, committees and caucuses are too (not to mention the cafeteria!).  There are over a dozen caucuses. I’m on the Climate Change caucus, the Older Vermonter caucus, and the Rural Economic Development Working Group. These are informal groups that meet once a week to discuss problems and legislation, and they’re great opportunities, if you attend, to meet other Vermonters who feel passionate about any given issue.

Finally, I would like to quash a rumor.  I plan to run for re-election. It’s an honor to serve the people of Royalton and Tunbridge, and a State Representative’s effectiveness is earned by experience and an ambition to improve.

John O’Brien
State Representative
Windsor-Orange 1
[email protected]