Government Structure: 3. Vermont’s Legislative Branch

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The Vermont General Assembly

As noted in Government Structure: Vermont’s Constitution, the Vermont General Assembly consists of a Senate with 30 members and a House of Representatives with 150 members.

For the Senate, there are 13 districts with one to six Senate seats each depending on population.  This is somewhat of an odd system.  If you live in Burlington, the state’s largest city, you get to vote for six senators representing 20% of the entire senate.  If you live in Randolph, you only get to vote for one.  

Having 30 districts or 15 with two senate seats each might be a more democratic approach. Of course, the district with six senate seats is heavily Democratic, so changing this could be politically difficult as it might jeopardize the current dominance of the Democratic Party. The House of Representatives is better, but not perfect.  Here, there are 104 districts with one or two seats each.

The key legislative position is the Speaker of the House, who is elected by the members of the House of Representatives.  This person gets to control the flow of legislation and the committee assignments of bills put forth for consideration.  If the Speaker doesn’t like a particular bill, he or she can make life very difficult for its passage.  

While the Lt. Governor is the constitutional President of the Senate, the President Pro Tempore, who is elected by the members of the Senate, is the true Senate equivalent to the Speaker of the House with similar influence on the legislative agenda.  Both houses also have Majority and Minority leaders who are elected by their constituent party members to coordinate the various political parties respective legislative agendas.

The Vermont Legislature

The legislature is in session from early January until early May of each year.  Any bills need to be submitted by the end of March to be considered in that session.  The real work of the legislature is carried out in committees, which meet daily throughout the legislative session and are open to the public.  

There are 14 House and 11 Senate standing committees that specialize in areas of government, like Appropriations (spending), Ways and Means (taxation) and Education. There are also 13 standing Joint Committees, as bills need to be approved by both houses. From time to time, Study Committees are formed to analyze particular areas of interest, like the need for Internet service in Vermont.  Last, Committees of Conference are often formed to hammer out differences in a particular piece of legislation between the House and Senate.

The Republican Party controlled the government of Vermont for over one hundred years. This dominance began to change in the late 1950’s and 1960’s.

Today, the General Assembly is firmly controlled by the Democratic Party.  In the Senate, Democrats control 21 of 30 seats, with 7 Republicans and 2 Progressives.  In the House, Democrats hold 83 seats, Republicans 53, Progressives 7 and 7 Independents.  

Vermont is the only state in the US where representatives from a party other than the Republican or Democratic have always had representation in the legislature.

Senators/Legislators make $723.28 per week (for what is normally 16 weeks per year) plus $115/day for lodging or $74/day for food if commuting to the capital. They serve two-year terms.

Vermont state law prohibits state legislators from serving as lobbyists for one year after they leave office.

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