MONTPELIER -- The Vermont House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would retool the way the chief of the Vermont National Guard is appointed.
The legislation follows an usual election earlier this year marked by one candidate’s withdrawal and the candidacy of another man who was not a Guard member but was running to oppose the possible basing of a new fighter jet in South Burlington.
Lawmakers said Vermont is the only state in which the head of the National Guard is chosen by a vote of a joint assembly of the House and Senate. In February they settled on Brigadier Gen. Steven Cray for the job.
Under the current proposal, the bill would require that someone to have attained at least the military rank of lieutenant colonel in order to be eligible for the post. A newly created panel would vet applications and make recommendations to lawmakers.
The bill comes up for final House action on Thursday and is expected to pass and go to the Senate.
House debate on Wednesday had two unusual features:
-- A series of decisions that amendments offered by Rep. George Cross, D-Winooski, were out of order. Cross sought debate over a proposal by the U.S. Air Force to base some of the next generation of fighter jets, the F-35, at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington.
-- An impassioned debate over another amendment by Cross to remove provisions from the bill that the Guard’s top officer, or adjutant general, must have military training.
The Burlington area has seen heated debate over the F-35 for more than a year, with supporters citing the positive economic impact of the Guard base and critics worried about increasing noise from the new jets. Cross’ city of Winooski, next to Burlington, has several neighborhoods under the flight paths for planes using the base.
Cross and fellow supporters of his amendments got a series of adverse rulings, as House Speaker Shap Smith agreed with other members’ objections that they were not germane to the bill.
Cross’ amendment to allow civilian leadership of the Guard was defeated easily. That followed February’s unsuccessful candidacy for adjutant general bu Burlington area lawyer James Marc Leas, an outspoken critic of the F-35 basing proposal.
Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, voiced objection to Leas’ candidacy on the House floor.
"We just saw a process unfold before us in the last adjutant general election that was offensive to a lot of us," he said. "We should not allow that process to be subverted in a way that is intended to use that process for other issues."