MONTPELIER -- State Rep. Paul Poirier, an independent, said Wednesday he will seek the post of House speaker when lawmakers convene in January, seeking to unseat two-term Democratic Speaker Shap Smith.
Poirier, a former Democrat from Barre, has criticized the current Democratic leadership for being too willing to cut social service programs and, in his view, to shortchange the state education fund, saying the latter policy puts upward pressure on local property taxes.
"Shap (Smith) is more conservative than I am," Poirier said.
The 64-year-old former teacher and hockey coach served eight years in the House before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988, rising to Democratic leader during his time in Montpelier. He later returned to the Legislature and has served a total of eight terms.
Poirier faulted Smith’s leadership style, saying the Morristown Democrat had keep too tight a rein on debate in the House and had failed to appoint enough Republicans, independents and Progressives to the late-session conference committees that work out differences between House and Senate versions of bills.
Poirier said Smith had been too quick to rule lawmakers out of order during debates.
"Under my speakership, I would make it very clear that a point of order raised to, in any way, to restrict or limit debate would have to be completely clear to everybody," he said. "My positions would be to rule in in favor of the person on the floor as much as I could within the rules of our chamber.
Smith later rebutted Poirier’s remarks, saying that he had encouraged open debate in the House, and that he had striven to be fair to the minority parties in committee assignments.
"There are times when it’s pretty clear under the rules that something should be ruled out of order," the speaker said. "And it’s not only about that debate, but it’s also about the precedent for the future."
He said on the key money committees, including Appropriations, which writes the budget, and Ways and Means, which develops tax policy, "minority representation is strong. You know the Transportation Committee is headed by a Republican when you have 94 Democrats (out of 150 House members). In almost any other state, that wouldn’t happen."
Both Smith and Poirier said they were actively campaigning, visiting and calling their House colleagues.
"I’m hopeful I will be speaker again. You never want to presume anything," Smith said.
Republican leader Don Turner of Milton said he did not know of anyone in his caucus considering a run for speaker. He said he shared some of Poirier’s criticisms of Smith but was not ready to endorse either of them.
"My interest right now is to have all the candidates come in and address the (Republican) caucus and, as in any election, have them make their case to the caucus," he said.