Legislative session shows what cooperation can accomplish

This may go down as one of the quietest legislative sessions that I have served in. What makes this calm so remarkable is that, for the first time in several years, we have divided government, with the legislature controlled by one party, and a Governor from another.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that this environment would lend itself to the kind of partisan discord we see in Washington. Indeed, at a time when our government in Washington is in a stake of near paralysis, with hyper-partisan rhetoric that undermines any opportunity for collaborative and constructive dialogue, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that things run relatively smoothly here in Vermont.

That is not to say that there are not bumps along the road. Our roads need more paving, and more bridges need fixing, yet our tax capacity is severely constrained. Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, and independents in Montpelier are all working together to make the best use of the limited resources we have. Yes, there might be disagreements, but these are cordial and constructive, and often yield to a better compromise that brings about consensus. In Vermont's example, a healthy tension ensures proper checks and balances, and ultimately produces the best outcome.

Washington may not be able to learn from Vermont, but we can at least work to ensure that future leaders in Vermont learn first-hand how much can be accomplished with just a modicum of civility and a willingness to work with others. I recently had the opportunity to mentor a Burr and Burton Academy student from Londonderry, Sean Young, who spent a day with me in Montpelier to learn more about the political process in our citizen legislature. Sean literally had a seat at the table with myself and my good friend and seatmate Rep. Matt Trieber, a Democrat from Rockingham, as we worked with the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office to fine tune details of a proposal to trim $2 million from the Fiscal 2018 state budget. Later in the afternoon, we watched as Rep. Anne Donahue, a Republican from Northfield, advocated in favor of a bill that would allow minors to access counseling to discuss their sexual orientation or gender identity without requiring parental consent.

The time I spent with Sean was a good reminder that, as legislators, we have a responsibility to ensure a bright future for the next generation — particularly if we want them to stay in Vermont! In that spirit, protecting and preserving the ability for school districts to offer school choice has been, and continues to be one of my highest priorities, particularly in the face of mounting threats we face.

Last autumn the State Board of Education attempted to severely limit school choice options available to our local students. I have done everything I can to hold the State Board of Education accountable for their failure to properly engage key constituencies impacted by their proposals. Working together with a coalition of concerned area legislators, we have been successful in ensuring that the voice of our local community is heard. I was pleased to see that Gov. Phil Scott has appointed two new members to the State Board of Education, including Manchester town manager John O'Keefe. These new members bring a fresh outside perspective, and in the case of O'Keefe, much needed representation from a region of the state with school choice.

While all signs point to a relatively smooth close to the Legislative session in early May, this may be the calm before the storm. Depending on the actions taken in Washington, Vermont's General Assembly may need to reconvene in the autumn to respond to potentially disruptive changes in our federal financial supports. We should all hope it does not come to that.

Oliver Olsen (I-Londonderry) represents the towns of Jamaica, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, and Winhall in the Vermont House.


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