Message from Montpelier: November 9

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Everyone needs an advocate. In particular children and students need advocates. It’s my hope that parents are advocates. If not possible, then someone.

Legislators need advocates, too. As part-time citizen legislators with no staff other than the shared legislative council and joint fiscal office, we rely on advocates, paid and volunteer, to inform and to offer expertise, but not to impede.

Two years ago an independent contractor bill that dealt with worker misclassification died because advocates outside the committee process didn’t like it. That bill came out of a committee comprised of Democrats, Republicans and an Independent with an 11-0 vote.

This year teachers’ health insurance negotiations resulted in a veto. Whether it was the teachers’ union, the school board association or the superintendents’ association, the result was less than satisfactory.

This year in my committee a $50,000 appropriation request that passed committee was withdrawn because advocates didn’t like it in context with the $70 million we cut.

I support advocates and unions, but their unwillingness of be flexible, to compromise, is a hindrance to making good public policy by those who are elected to represent the interests of all constituents.

Here’s an example of an over the top response by an advocacy group. The Mountain Biking Association receives a grant of approximately $28,000 to promote its activities. Mountain biking in Vermont attracts a number of out of state bike riders and is a growing sector of our tourist industry.

The Appropriations Committee received a letter from auditor Doug Hoffer covering a few subjects including items that in his opinion should be reevaluated. There are always advocates in the room and one of them must have represented the association because within an hour we started getting messages through the sergeant-at-arms delivered by the pages all asking us to not cut any of those funds.

Interesting enough, all the messages were addressed to me! We never figured out why. Within hours I received approximately 100 messages, which is a quantity unheard of on an issue like this – one from Colchester, a large number from Vermonters and some from out of state. Some messages just said, “I like to mountain bike. Don’t cut the grant!”

This advocacy became annoying as each time a page delivered a message, it interrupted testimony. It was clear that it was an organized effort probably initiated by the advocate in the room via an email alert. Orchestrated campaigns, sheer numbers and out-of-state messages aren’t nearly as effective as personal notes and phone calls.

So advocacy can be a double-edged sword. We need it and depend on it, but some campaigns do more to hurt the cause than help.