If you read today's article in VtDigger you know that the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA) has confirmed that they are talking to Vince Illuzzi to take over the job as legislative affairs director. The job is available because Cassandra Gekas, who had confirmed just before the election that she had been offered the job, has decided not to take it.
The question I have to ask about this story is a simple one: are they crazy?
We know that Illuzzi has had good relations with organized labor, and over the years he has run for office with the endorsement, if not the active support, of some of Vermont's biggest unions. Still, if VSEA thinks that Vince Illuzzi is a friend to Vermont's working people they're kidding themselves.
I'll just talk about one chapter in recent history. In 2010 Vermont's unemployment compensation trust fund was in trouble, closing in on a zero balance. This wasn't surprising, since the economy had collapsed,, Vermont, like the rest of the country, was experiencing high unemployent, so many more people were drawing on the fund.
In addition, for decades Vermont law had systematically underfunded the system with artificially low caps on payroll levels subject to the unemployment tax. In other words, Vermont businesses had received the benefit of having their employees covered by the unemployment system but had not had to pay taxes at levels needed to sustain the system. We had undercollected from employers, and that led directly to the fund balance shortages in 2009-10.
There had to be a legislative solution, and advocates for unions, unemployed people, and employers spent hours at the State House trying to work out a solution. The advocates for the unemployed had to fight hard to limit attacks on benefit levels, expansion of disqualifications, and other anti-worker proposals.
What did Vince Illuzzi propose?
For one thing, he proposed $22 million in new taxes on Vermont's workers. As Peter Hirschfeld reported in Vermont Today:
A proposal under consideration in the Senate would raise up to $22 million annually by assessing a new tax on the vast majority of working residents. The new revenue, Senate lawmakers say, could allow the state to rescue the bankrupt fund without cutting the benefits of out-of-work Vermonters. The additional money, according to Sen. Vince Illuzzi, would also tamp down the tax increases on businesses that will be needed to return the fund to solvency.
You got that, right? Illuzzi's proposal was to raise taxes on workers specifically in order to avoid raising taxes on businesses. This tax was such an extreme measure that even the anti-worker Douglas administration would not support it.
For another thing, the bill that Illuzzi introduced, S. 290 (technically it was a committee bill, but it was a bill from the committee he chaired) included other anti-worker provisions. His proposal, which became law, was to slash unemployment benefits by imposing a one-week waiting period on benefits for newly eligible workers. While couched as merely a delay and not a cut, since most workers don't exhaust their benefits the waiting period actually reduces the total benefits they receive by one week's worth.
His bill also included harsher treatment for workers who are disqualified for benefits because they were fired for misconduct in connection with their employment.
Fortunately, Democrats were able to limit, roll back, or sunset some of the worst provisions of Illuzzi's bill. The bill would have been a lot worse, and specifically a lot worse for workers, if Illuzzi had gotten his way.
There are plenty of organizations in the State House who hire lobbyists without regard to ideology. To a degree, if you know your way around the building and do your homework you can do a job even for a client you don't really agree with. Traditionally, though, unions rely on union people to represent them in the building; it's seen as more than a job.
While Illuzzi has a reputation of being a determined fighter for the things he really wants, is there any reason to think that he is committed to the cause of workers in Vermont?