Summer Study Committees: Legislation-in-Training or a Graveyard for Controversial Bills?
Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) has a nickname for the summer-study committees that keep state lawmakers busy after the legislature adjourns in May. He mockingly refers to their collective effect as the “Legislature Full Employment Act.”
“Summer studies rarely study something that isn’t already known. They tend to be a substitute for actually doing something,” says Galbraith. “It’s a way to avoid taking action.”
State lawmakers set up 13 summer-study committees on a range of topics in the 2013 session. The Burlington Free Press reported a larger number — 65 studies and reports ordered by legislators — but state officials couldn’t confirm that tally.
Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and Capitol Hill staffer, argues most of the off-season work is duplicative and a waste of time and money. As an example, he cites a controversial lakeshore protection bill that passed the House this year but stalled in the Senate.
The legislation grew out of an exhaustive study and report by the Agency of Natural Resources that documented the environmental threats to Vermont’s lakes and put a $156 million annual price tag on remediation. But with property owners in revolt, Senate leaders punted the bill to a study committee — the newly formed Lake Shoreland Protection Commission Working Group. Its first meeting is June 17.
“We already knew that our lake-water quality was probably the worst in the East. We had proposals that needed to be done,” Galbraith says. “But because there wasn’t the will to do it, we went with another study.”
Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) disagrees with her colleague’s overall assessment, saying summer studies offer lawmakers a chance to focus on complex issues with fewer distractions. Snelling contends the lakeshore bill was mired in so much misinformation that it was “practically impossible” for the Senate to act. Lawmakers needed more time to separate fact from fiction and to educate the public. The work group will hold five public meetings around the state over the summer.
“This needs a different kind of conversation to get even close to where we need to go,” says Snelling, a member of the working group. “We’re going out to hear testimony from people closer to where they live, instead of having them come to us at the Statehouse. So I see that as a way of extending the conversation to the public.”
Some of this year’s studies will pick up where legislators left off — wrangling over vexing issues such as limits on Reach Up welfare benefits and paid family leave. But other studies deal with more benign topics, such as taking inventory of the state’s workforce development programs. Only a dozen studies involve a committee of lawmakers; many simply direct state agencies to research a topic and report back to the legislature in January.
All of these studies cost money, however, which leads Galbraith to quip, “I jokingly proposed that we rename the Agency of Natural Resources the Agency of Studies, because all that staff time is money that taxpayers are paying.”
Interestingly, no one knows exactly how much. Legislators are paid $118 per day for meals and lodging, plus mileage reimbursement, to attend meetings. A few studies come with fixed budgets — the lakeshore protection commission, for instance, was allotted $10,000. But the Legislative Council — which staffs all Statehouse committees — can’t say what portion of their time goes to assist summer studies. Nor does the Agency of Administration keep track of the hours logged by state employees who respond to off-season requests for information, according to Secretary Jeb Spaulding.
Asked whether summer studies are a useful exercise or a place to maroon controversial bills, Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) answers, “Both.” On the plus side: A bill Baruth sponsored that would grant driving privileges to migrant workers didn’t have the votes to pass in 2012, so it got kicked to a summer study committee. After that panel endorsed issuing IDs to workers here illegally, the bill reappeared in the 2013 legislative session. It passed both houses, and Gov. Peter Shumlin is scheduled to sign it on Wednesday, June 5.
But Baruth has also witnessed bills banished to studies as a political tactic. He says lawmakers refer to the practice as “gut and study.”
“In other words, you take a bill and then cut out anything of any import and you insert a study,” Baruth relates. Last year, a hotly debated bill allowing childcare workers to unionize survived multiple gut-and-study attempts on the Senate floor, Baruth says, before ultimately dying in conference committee.
Former state senator Vince Illuzzi developed another saying about summer studies during his 32 years under Montpelier’s golden dome: “Studies are for losers.”
“If you’re a legislator or lobbyist or administration official opposed to a particular idea, the graceful way to kill it is to send it to a study committee,” says Illuzzi, a Republican who represented Essex and Orleans counties. “Then the study, of course, never materializes into anything of significance.”
But Illuzzi acknowledges there are legitimate summer study committees that aren’t designed to fail. He remembers one in the summer of 1993, following the death of a mentally ill prison inmate at the hands of a correctional officer. That led to a series of reforms, including limits on how long inmates could be kept in solitary confinement.
“There was no time to tackle it during the session,” recalls Illuzzi, who now lobbies for the Vermont State Employees Association.
Time wasn’t the problem this year for a bill proposing a three-year moratorium on new ridgeline wind-power projects. Anti-big-wind lawmakers are simply outnumbered in the Statehouse. Even their attempts to secure $75,000 for a study went down in defeat. The consolation prize? A series of off-session peace talks between the chairs of the House and Senate natural resources committees.
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) believes studies are useful tools and points out that two big laws derived from summer committees: the aforementioned migrant worker driver’s license bill and the transportation bill. Years before same-sex marriage became legal, a commission was appointed to study that policy, Smith notes. Ditto for right-to-die legislation, which Shumlin signed into law two weeks ago.
“I actually think summer studies tend to provide the predicate that gets things done in the future,” Smith says. The speaker acknowledges that studies are sometimes used to, as he puts it, “try to square the circle.” But he adds, “From my perspective, I don’t want to put together a study that is designed to go nowhere, because it’s a waste of taxpayer money.”
As with any bill, the price tag often determines whether studies lead to legislation or collect dust on a shelf. As one lobbyist puts it, “Any study that comes with funding recommendations is dead on arrival.” Such was the case with a 2012 study on thermal efficiency that called for investing $267 million over seven years to help Vermont homes and businesses waste less energy. This year, Shumlin called for making a $6 million down payment on thermal efficiency, but the initiative went nowhere after his funding plan unraveled.
Montpelier lobbyist Michael Sirotkin says summer studies have the power to change the conversation among policymakers, even if that takes time. He recalls one study during Howard Dean’s administration that paved the way for Vermont’s first methadone clinics, a crucial resource for fighting heroin addiction. As Sirotkin recalls, Dean opposed using state funds for the clinics, so lawmakers appointed a summer panel to study the issue and build momentum. The legislature ended up passing a law because “all the facts came out” in the study, he says.
“Sometimes summer studies are your best friend,” Sirotkin says. “Legislators get involved and spend time. They don’t like to leave empty-handed, so the issue gets a boost or head start going into the next session.”