Representative Laura Sibilia was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in the 2014 election, representing the Windham-Bennington District. Before serving in office, Rep. Sibilia served on the Vermont School Board Association Board and co-founded a nonprofit organization. In office, she currently serves on four different committees: the House Committee on Energy and Technology, the House Ethics Panel, the Nuclear DeCommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, and the Joint Legislative IT Oversight Committee. Even if you do not live in Rep. Sibilia’s district, her insights on being an independent in the legislature are important and contribute to the knowledge on the value that independents bring to government.
Rep. Sibilia is well aware of the hurdles facing independents in office. She notes that:
“one challenge is the fact that you are not privy to all the partisan strategy… that can have its drawbacks just in the sense that you don’t know everything that is going on sometimes.”
Yet while serving in the House, she mentioned that independents in Vermont
“are seen as credible by our partisan colleagues… when I say something, or when an independent in the legislature says something, I think our voices are viewed as credible.”
Rather than solely focusing on some of the obstacles independents encounter while in office, she referenced that the most pressing difficulty is being elected and running a successful campaign due to the lack of support and infrastructure (something that Unite America is working to address for independents nationwide).
Rep. Sibilia has seen first-hand how independents in the state legislature can facilitate action needed during a stalemate. Throughout disagreements and even a potential government shutdown, Rep. Sibilia stated that independents are able to articulate ideas clearly and help solve the problem. Even more, independents collaborate with “folks from across all the parties as necessary” and attend caucus meetings, saying that hearing all sides can help the legislature reach consensus.
Rep. Sibilia worked on Vermont’s education plan where she was active in the budget debate that had major implications for the state. Rep. Sibilia wrote that she supported the budget of H.911 (passed then vetoed), believing that it struck a necessary balance and included items such as lowering the cap of income sensitivity adjustments and giving 34.5 million in one time money to pay towards the teacher’s retirement fund. While lowering property taxes is commendable, she notes that this must be considered in conjunction with Vermont’s responsibility to provide equitable education to children.
Another one of Rep. Sibilia’s interests revolves around net neutrality. Rep. Sibilia served on the House Committee on Energy and Technology (E&T) where she assisted in rewriting a net neutrality bill. Net neutrality is not a new topic for Rep. Sibilia as she co-sponsored a joint resolution that urged the Federal Communications Commission to retain neutrality rules for internet access in 2017. After the federal level repeals of net neutrality protections, Gov. Scott enacted an executive order in February 2018. In response to a perceived loophole, both Senate and House representatives began working on amending internet service providers’ requirements in Vermont. S. 289, or Act 169 passed and was signed by the governor in May, 2018. Rep. Sibilia’s investment in net neutrality continued and during this 2018 session, she cosponsored a House Bill that took a more aggressive stance than the Senate Bill (that was eventually passed) and the governor’s Executive Order. Rep. Sibilia led the E&T Committee examinations of the three proposals to ensure net neutrality protections for the state. She also played a major role in securing a unanimous tri-partisan vote out of committee on a final amended bill where there were four Democrats, two Republicans, one elected Progressive, and Rep. Sibilia on the House E & T committee.
While some are skeptical about independents and party affiliation (is independent simply a cover for a Democrat or Republican?), Rep. Sibilia notes that the independents in Vermont seldom vote the same way and says she often does not know how the other independents will vote on a given bill. Rep. Sibilia pointed out the growing number of independents in Vermont (currently at 7) and expressed her belief that constituents see how credible independents in office truly are, and these representatives set a good example while serving their communities.
Rep. Sibilia spoke about the unique culture in Vermont and that in the state, “the power of the individual is highly prized. Yet, in Rep. Sibilia’s professional working experiences, she acknowledges that this power of the individual can make it harder to get people to work together as they don’t want to give up that power. Elected independents can often relate to this idea as they are not beholden to parties, rely on individual research and action while in office, and remain cautious when faced with decisions that might tie them to belief systems or ideological platforms.
However, the tendency to maintain power is not inalterable and Rep. Sibilia has seen that legislators give up individual power when the pain is great enough that they are willing to collaborate to try to stop that pain. Rep. Sibilia elaborated that the dysfunction currently seen in government is great enough in the US that a network for independents, such as Unite America, could be the object that enables independents to collaborate and support one another to elect common sense independent candidates.
The independents’ experience in Vermont underscores that independents can initiate action and instrumental changes needed in the often polarized world of state legislatures. Unite America and independents like Rep. Sibilia recognize this and work to ensure that the United States can have a political environment where voters and legislators can find solutions for the country.
Leanna is a second year student in the MA Conflict Resolution program at Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. She is currently a research fellow for the Unite America Institute.