Is it time for Vermont's Citizen Legislature to Professionalize?

The Vermont Legislature is a part-time citizen legislature that begins its session in January and ajourns in May. Legislative pay is not that high, there aren't a lot of legislative staff, and many times legislators come to rely on lobbyists for expertise when it comes to certain legislation.

Many of the legislators are retired, have the flexibility to hold a legislative position while having another job or some other circumstance that allows them to serve in the legislature. This in itself is not a bad thing, but I view it as holding back many people who would otherwise be interested in a career in politics.

The barriers to entry are high. How? The pay is low enough that it turns off many people who would otherwise be excellent legislators (people need to make a living) and the part-time aspect of it disrupts schedules for many citizens. Most people don't have the flexibility required in their lives (whatever they may be). Most jobs I know of certainly wouldn't allow you to take off months at a time to serve as a legislator in a part-time capacity.

This bothers me tremendously. While the commitment of our current legislators is commendable, I see that the challenges the state faces might not be adequately met by the current system. How so? The state faces many funding challenges, an aging population and high costs of living and an increasingly complex set of issues that require full-time commitment from the people's representatives. The fact that we have a citizen legislature is an anachronism, a half-assed measure that seems outdated.

A Burlington Free Press article describing how Vermont is unable to escape a tech albatross is a perfect example. After the fiasco that took place with Vermont Health Connect, many legislators feel ill-equipped to vet computer technology overhauls and there is no committee to handle technology issues. 

Hmm, well of course they are ill-equipped. They lack a sufficient number of professional legislative staff. Their primary focus most of the year isn't on serving in the legislature, it is on other things. They're bringing a water bucket to a forest fire.

So what do they do? They kick the can down the road, even when many important government programs handing out benefits are operating on computer systems dating back to the 1980s and for which they can't find sufficient staff or parts to keep it going. Are these guys for real? The article states there are many federally mandated programs which are on hold in Vermont (about 50) and the state is facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Are you f*cking kidding me?!

A professional legislature brings many benefits. Among them, it attracts more qualified members, more time for policy development and DELIBERATION, increased ability to influence the policymaking process and an increased ability to focus on legislative issues. There are downsides to it of course, namely that it COSTS MORE MONEY. 

If legislators aren't up to the task, then they should resign, or even better yet, vote to reform the legislative branch and transform themselves into a professional body that will give themselves the time to actually tackle these issues. For the moment, all I hear is the clattering of a can hitting the road.  


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