Wednesday April 3, 2013

The legislative district that includes Guilford and Vernon is one of the most unusual in the state. A nuclear plant and two towns, one majority Republican and the other majority Democrat, make it a difficult place to run a political campaign. Believe me, I know from first-hand experience.

Once the election smoke clears voters hold some hope that their elected representative will be sensitive to the issues that are important to them. In the case of the Vernon-Guilford district Rep. Mike Hebert-R-Vernon has done a good job of representing Guilford on the Sweet Pond restoration project. On other more political issues, his voting record indicates he has followed the Republican party-line.

Hebert made it clear during his campaign that he was a supporter of Vermont Yankee and that he was no fan of the state's push to move to a single payer health care system. The voters knew what they were voting for and they elected the Republican from Vernon.

You can't fault a politician for sticking to his ideological guns, but you can criticize him when it seems that he is trying to play both sides of the fence on issues. A case in point is the current equal pay bill that has passed the House and is now moving to the Senate.

The bill aims to equalize pay for men and women. It is a personal issue for me because I have worked in a mostly female profession for 35 years and, I am sure, if nursing was a mostly male profession that wages would have moved up much faster than they have.

In a Reformer story about the bill last Friday, reporter Mike Faher explained, "But state Rep. Mike Hebert, a Vernon-based Republican, said he hopes his constituents look beyond the bill's name and understand that he does not oppose equal pay for women. Instead, Hebert said he could not support other, unrelated portions of the bill that he believes will unnecessarily burden business owners."

This is Hebert's second term in a Democratically controlled legislature. He knows that he has very little power and that taking ideological stands on issues contrary to the best interests of the majority of his constituents only serves his interest as a party soldier.

Of course, he also knows that his vote has little influence, so voting his conscience will not sway any issue. When a legislator says that he supports the main piece of a bill but votes against that bill because of another part of the bill, one has to wonder about his priorities.

According to last Friday's Reformer piece, "The law would ban ‘retaliation' against employees who exercise their rights as set forth in the bill. Hebert wonders whether that could stop an employer from firing a staffer who clearly is not performing his or her job; the employer, Hebert contends, might fear that the worker would claim he or she is being retaliated against."

Hebert went on to say, "I'm concerned with the business owner who gets caught up in this. Most responsible employers deal with flexibility and pay issues on their own without legislative action being necessary."

This bill is intended to provide equal pay for everyone, not protection for employers. Rep. Valerie Stuart-D-Brattleboro put the inequality issue in perspective stating in the Reformer story, "It pains me to say that, during my over 30 years as a professional woman, with 14 years spent working in New York City and 19 here in Vermont, I experienced some of the most unfair and abusive treatment by a male supervisor who got paid twice as much as I did and who worked half as much as me and my staff of five," Stuart said in House journal comments. "Do I believe our daughters need us to continue to fight for equal pay and fair treatment under the law? You bet."

It is clear that Hebert feels that it is more important to protect the needs of business owners than it is to correct a social injustice. Saying that he is in support of equal pay for women and then not voting for a bill that provides for equal pay does not pass the smell test. He is not a naïve legislator. Not voting for this bill, no matter what he says, clearly shows us his priorities.

There is nothing bad about setting such priorities, but voters need to make sure their elected officials are really telling them where they stand on issues. If their words cannot be trusted then their voting record is the best trust test available.

And, I wonder how he can continue to use his influence to make any progress on the Sweet Pond restoration project when he has said he will not be voting for any more taxes. Taxes support state projects. You can't say you support a state-funded project and then vote against the only means for supporting that project. Let's see how this one plays out.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at rbdav@comcast.net.