MONTPELIER — Lawmakers, one month into the legislative session, will soon be casting tough votes on bills in committee, and then on the House and Senate floors. That fact is not lost on House Speaker Shap Smith, who looked to rally his troops Tuesday at the weekly Democratic caucus.
A state budget with a $112 million gap that must be closed means cuts will be made to programs that constituents likely depend on. And the public is demanding property tax relief, but voters don’t want to see changes to their local school districts.
Smith, now in his fourth term as speaker, knows just how a legislative session plays out. He warned his faction of the pressures that will soon wash over them as they try to address the state’s challenges.
“One of the most difficult parts for all of us … is to keep an open mind and not to close ourselves off to possible solutions to the challenges we face as we move forward. We’re going to get over the next couple of months people asking us to promise them that we won’t do X, Y or Z,” he said. “What’s really important, from my perspective, is to the extent possible, acknowledge that you understand where they’re coming from, but you can’t make them promises because you really need to see what the lay of the land is.”
The constituents, Smith declared, placed their trust and faith in those they elected. Now it’s time for those elected to begin crafting solutions. But solutions will leave some displeased.
“We’re here to grapple with those issues and those constituents send you here because they believe that you’re the person that can grapple with those issues. They trust you to make those decisions. And so have those conversations, understand what they’re thinking and feeling, and bring their voice here and tell them, ‘I want you to be part of this conversation and we can’t close this conversation off before it even starts. We can’t give you the answer before we even know what the problem is,’” Smith said.
The address Tuesday wasn’t the result of any particular concern about morale within the caucus, according to Smith aide Dylan Giambatista. Rather, it was an effort to encourage members to remain focused and ready themselves for the work ahead, he said.
Just a few minutes before the Democratic caucus, House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, delivered his own pep talk to the Republican caucus. He, too, reminded his members that the constituents sent them to Montpelier with a purpose. He urged them to consider all implications — particularly economic impacts — before casting any yes votes, even for bills in committee.
Like any good leader, Smith offered hope to his members.
“We spend some time here wrestling with really difficult issues and it is easy to look at the glass half empty rather than the glass half full,” Smith said to a room full of mostly House Democrats, but also a few lobbyists and reporters.
He recounted recent, positive meetings with tech entrepeneurs, who he said are hiring. “There was a lot of optimism about what can happen, and it wasn’t just big businesses. It was businesses ranging from three to four people to 500 to 600 people,” Smith said.
Tuesday’s pep rally ended, of course, on a high note.
“There is a really good energy going through this building right now. I feel that people are up to the challenge. That’s it’s not partisan driven. That people are looking at these as Vermont’s challenges and Vermont’s problems, not Democrats’ problems, not Republicans’ problems, not Progressives’ problems, not independents’ problems,” the speaker said. “Remember we are still sitting in a Democratic institution that still allows access to its citizens and still values solutions to problems not barriers to solutions. We’re in Montpelier, we’re not in Washington. And thank God for that, right?”