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Legislator Pay and Benefits Debated this Session

MONTPELIER, V.T. – A number of Vermont’s lawmakers have stepped down from their positions in recent years due to financial and mental health challenges, including a representative just this week.

Representative Troy Headrick, P-Burlington, says he had to prepare for the change in lifestyle as a first-time legislator. “I was going to have to be very deliberate about how I could make this work without really feeling it financially,” Headrick said.

Vermont operates with a part-time legislature that works for the first 18 weeks of every year, with legislators receiving just over $13,000 for that work, along with reimbursements for housing, food and mileage. They have long stressed their struggle to make ends meet while serving in Montpelier.

Senator Becca White, D-Hartford, works as a cashier outside of the session. “Every single time I’ve run for office, I’ve had to have a very tough conversation over whether I’ll be able to do it,” she said.

White and Headrick say pushing forward a newly introduced senate bill that would raise benefits for lawmakers could make running for office more enticing, after representative Kate Donnally, D-Lamoille, announced she would be stepping down from her house seat on Friday due to financial reasons.

“The bill would give access to benefits like healthcare, access to child and dependent care benefits,” White said.

The state says the issue has been heightened by the pandemic, and partly triggered the massive turnover in the house and senate this session.

“I’ve had legislators say I’m not in this for the pay, and no one should be. I’ve also had legislators say this is costing me so much money,” said Mike Ferrant, the director of Vermont’s Office of Legislative Operations.

Representative Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, D-Burlington, also said that she will be presenting a bill in the house that would aim to increase pay for lawmakers, not just specific benefits.

“Help young people who have no other outlet, they’ve gone through the ringer the last couple years with the pandemic,” she said.

While lawmakers are concerned about the optics of helping themselves, they say it will pave the way for more diversity and open doors for more Vermonters to run or office in the future.

“It’s not a personal thing so much as it is realizing that the doors should be open to the next generation of legislators who may come from different and diverse backgrounds,” said Senator Nader Hashim, D-Windham.

But the question stands, how much will it cost Vermonters?

“We’re going to be taking some detailed testimony on how we make that work,” White said.

In a statement on Friday, Governor Phil Scott said he was open to having a conversation about legislative compensation. However, he believes that conversation should be coupled with a shortened, 90-day legislative session in hopes of enabling more legislators to have employment outside of the session.

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