By Joe Benning
LYNDON – This is an open letter to the citizens of the Caledonia-Orange senatorial district, which includes all of Caledonia County and the six Orange County towns of Orange, Topsham, Newbury, Bradford, Fairlee and West Fairlee. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as one of your two state senators since 2011.
It takes a while, after you are first elected, to be recognized and appreciated by your legislative colleagues before you earn positions of importance within the Vermont General Assembly. In my own case I’ve been elected the Vermont Senate’s minority leader. I chair the standing committee of Senate Institutions, and chair the Joint Committee on Judicial Rules, the Senate Ethics Panel and the Capital Complex Security Committee. I also serve as vice-chair of the Senate Sexual Harassment Panel. I serve on the standing committee of Senate Judiciary, and a number of ad hoc committees. The latter include Senate Rules, Joint Rules, the Joint Legislative Management Committee, Judicial Retention and the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. I am a former chair of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission and have served as moderator of the Town of Lyndon for almost ten years. I am a practicing trial lawyer who has practiced in both federal and state courts for almost 37 years.
Why is the above important? With the 2020 Census now being taken, the next legislature will go through the process of redrawing legislative district lines. If the population has shifted the way some predict, there will be great pressure to decrease the number of legislative seats available to northeastern Vermont. Rebuffing those attempts will require strong and respected voices within the Vermont General Assembly. I believe I have earned that respect.
My legislative track record is demonstrative of the strength of my voice. For instance, the very first bill I signed on to led to the creation of an expungement process for low-level criminal offenses. I co-authored that bill with Democrat Senator Richard Sears. That bill has been law since 2011 and has led to the clearing of criminal records for well over 14,000 Vermonters.
This year saw an attempt by the House of Representatives to remove 2.8 million dollars from the Capital Bill, which the Governor recommended for completion of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. As chair of Senate Institutions, I fought successfully to have that money restored.
When Covid-19 drove legislators from the statehouse in March, legislative business still had to be conducted. I was one of two original drafters of the Senate Rule which enabled remote voting via Zoom conferencing. Recognizing the state constitution’s requirement that the doors of the General Assembly remain open to the public, I insisted on a system in which senators had to appear on both video and audio to vote, and which was available simultaneously to the public for viewing. That rule was adopted.
Recognizing that Chittenden County’s six-member senatorial district was out of line with the rest of the country, and certainly unfair to the rest of the state, I co-authored with two Democratic senators a bill to break it up. That bill is now law and will become effective in the 2022 election cycle.
Recognizing that the so-called “War on Drugs” was a failure, I co-authored the bill that led to legalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana. This session I co-authored the bill (now law) which creates a taxed and regulated cannabis sales system.
Approached by a constituent fighting breast cancer, I learned that mammograms sometimes have difficulty detecting cancer due to dense breast tissue. I introduced the bill, now law, requiring doctors to inform patients with dense breast tissue of alternative methods of detection.
Approached by an eighth-grade student doing a class project, she suggested Vermont needed a Latin motto like many other states. The bill I filed to help her learn about the legislative process surprisingly became the subject of ridicule. We decided to fight on through that ridicule. I am proud to say we succeeded and now Vermont’s school children are being taught Vermont’s Latin motto: “Stella Quarta Decima Fulgeat” (meaning: “May the 14th Star Shine Bright”).
During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Cedar Creek, a place where Vermont soldiers became famous, I successfully negotiated with Virginia and battlefield authorities for placement of one of Vermont’s green and gold roadside historical markers on the battlefield. To date it remains the only Vermont roadside historical sign placed out of state, and the only out of state roadside historical sign accepted by Virginia.
In the midst of a Covid-limited legislative session, I fought to forestall closure of Vermont Tech and NVU Johnson/Lyndon. I used my seat on the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules to delay implementation of a rule that would have forced closure of demolition derbies at the Caledonia, Orleans and Rutland County fairs. I fought to keep Kingdom Trails out of Act 250 jurisdiction. On Senate Judiciary I was heavily involved in several bills dealing with racial justice reforms and police use of force, being personally responsible for the amendment on S.119 to provide police with more time to bring their training manuals in line with expectations.
I seek re-election because there is much work to be done. We must complete roll out of universal broadband/cell phone coverage. We must maintain NVU-Lyndon and the other state colleges as academic and economic drivers in their respective communities. We should keep our environment clean with Vermont-appropriate protections. I would like to eliminate the military retirement tax for the benefit of our veterans and deal with the loss of childcare facilities for the benefit of young families. We will need to practice fiscal prudence in facing pension obligations that now threaten our ability to deliver other services. We cannot abandon efforts to eradicate our opioid crisis or racial disparities in our society. Lastly, great effort must be made to maintain our economy as we get through Covid-19.