Legislature’s now open for business
BENNINGTON -- A new legislative biennium beginning this week presents myriad opportunities for Democratic policy gains as Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin takes office and both chambers maintain strong Democratic majorities.
But the biggest issue that has plagued Montpelier for several years remains -- a massive budget gap that must be closed. The problem is worsened this year, however, because low-hanging fruit has already been plucked in recent years, and the spigot of federal stimulus dollars has dried up.
Shumlin, from Putney, who was sworn in Thursday, won a five-way Democratic primary before edging out Republican Brian Dubie in the general election. He replaces the retiring James Douglas, a mostly moderate Republican who battled large Democratic legislative majorities for most of his eight-year tenure. Douglas and lawmakers stymied each other on several fronts, as voters chose a divided government for three of Douglas’ four terms.
Shumlin knows Senate’s role
Shumlin will begin his own tenure with strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. But despite cozy relationships with former colleagues in the Senate, and among House leadership, Democratic lawmakers say Shumlin’s plans will not be rubberstamped without proper consideration.
"Certainly, we share many of the same values, and I think that will allow us to move to common goals probably more easily than in the past. That said, there is an inherent tension between the legislative branch and the executive branch. We will have some disagreements and we will work to minimize those disagreements," House Speaker Shap Smith said.
Bennington County Democratic Sen. Dick Sears, one of the senior members in the Senate, said former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean also enjoyed majorities in the Legislature but lawmakers did not always play along.
"We had tremendous fights during the Howard Dean era. Nothing is a given," Sears said. "I can remember some drag-out fights, with Peter Shumlin leading the way."
For his part, Shumlin said he intends to find areas of common ground with lawmakers in achieving policy success for Vermonters.
"I understand that the Legislature is one branch of government and the executive is one branch," Shumlin said. "I think sometimes we spend too much time focusing on what might divide us. I’m going to spending my time focusing on what unites us."
Finding common ground is likely to face immediate obstacles. The tallest task for both the Shumlin administration and lawmakers will be to balance the budget deficit that has grown even larger in recent months. What was once believed to be a $112 million gap is now $150 million, just as some lawmakers, including Sears, warned of last fall.
"I hate to say I told you so," Sears said, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and expected to serve as the committee’ vice chairman this year. "It was clear to me that a couple of things weren’t going to work as planned."
Members of Shumlin’s team have warned that almost everyone will find fault with the budget he will propose later this month. Tough decisions will be made and included in the budget, Shumlin said.
"I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity. I took the job understanding that we were facing a $154 million budget challenge. I am bound and determined to make the tough choices so that we put Vermont back on a responsible spending path once and for all. I don’t want to be back here next year dealing with a deficit," he said.
"This is the third year in a row that Vermont has spent beyond its means by over $100 million."
Smith said the House will focus immediately on the budget. "The first order of business is going to be addressing the third year of three years of difficult budgets. I’m going to work closely with the administration in trying to put us on a stable footing for the future," he said.
Shumlin and lawmakers must balance the budget without the influx of federal funding that aided the previous two state spending plans. Some programs are like to face deep cuts, or perhaps elimination. "I think budget-wise it’s going to be tougher. The low-hanging fruit is already gone. The previous administration had the advantage of using some stimulus money," Sears said. "It’s going to mean some really hard choices about programs."
Part of the budget solution could come from changes to the tax structure. The Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission will present a report later this month outlining recommended changes to the state’s taxing system.
Shumlin has large campaign promises to fulfill, too. He’s promised to deliver broadband Internet and cell phone connections to the "last mile" in Vermont by 2013.
He’s also said he will deliver on a single-payer health care plan for Vermont. Dr. William Hsiao, a consultant hired by the Legislature will deliver three health care systems in February, including a single-payer system. Implementing a single-payer plan will require federal waivers, however.
A plan to curb costs in the Department of Corrections was a central focus during the general election campaign. Shumlin said he will continue efforts to reduce costs by investing in housing, treatment and educational programs to ensure nonviolent offenders do not return to prison. Doing so will reduce the number of inmates under state supervision and lower costs, he said.
Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he will begin work on that issue soon after the Legislature convenes.
Other issues that have been stymied by Douglas but are supported by Shumlin will come up again and face a strong likelihood of passage. Among the issues are campaign finance reform and the decriminalization of marijuana.
Sears said he would support a system that allows those charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana to face a civil fine rather than a criminal charge. "I don’t have a problem with working towards decriminalizing," he said.
Supporters of a physician-assisted suicide bill believe such a law can pass under Shumlin’s leadership. He has said he supports a law in Oregon that allows doctors to administer a lethal dose of medicine. The issue is likely to be one area where Democratic lawmakers are not all on board with Shumlin’s wishes.
"I think the governor-elect was pretty clear during the campaign that he supported it. I’ve been pretty clear that I have grave concerns about it, and have told him that," Sears said.
Shumlin said he will look first at balancing the state budget, but does not plan to push everything else aside.
"Let’s be clear, the top of the agenda is making the infrastructure changes that government must make to grow jobs and lift incomes for the middle class. That’s my singular focus," he said. "All of the smaller areas ... can be dealt with at the same time."
"The more balls that I have in the air, generally, the better I juggle," Shumlin said. "I’m not afraid of multiple challenges on multiple fronts."
Shumlin will deliver his inaugural address in the House chamber Thursday. Aides said the speech will recognize the difficult task ahead. It will also talk about the promises ahead, though.
"I think it’s going to be a mixture of being solemn and hopeful," said Shumlin spokeswoman Alexandra MacLean. "We recognize that these are sober times that we live in but we’re also hopeful about our future."
Many local lawmakers, meanwhile, are set to return to Montpelier. Bennington County sends just one new lawmakers. Rep. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, defeated Republican Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr. in November.
He said his initial focus will be understanding the full extent of the budget gap.
"I’m with everybody else," Campion said. "What I’m going to do my best at initially is being as strong an advocate for Bennington as possible as we go through these budgetary issues."
"My view is that we have a lot to do balancing the budget and making the changes that will allow us to grow jobs and put Vermonters back to work. This kind of challenge knows no political party. It’s hard work," he said. "I believe we have an extraordinary opportunity to provide the leadership that will ensure job growth in Vermont if we have the courage. We have a lot to do," he said.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at email@example.com
The county delegation
Rep. Anne Mook, D-Bennington
House Education Committee
Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington
House Committee on Health Care
Rep. Brian Campion, D-Bennington
Committee to be determined
Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington
House Committee on Transportation
Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal
House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington
House Committee on Corrections and Institutions
Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset
House Committee on Judiciary
Rep. Jeff Wilson, D-Manchester
House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development
Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro
House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs
Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury
House Committee on Appropriations
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington
Senate Committee on Judiciary, Senate Committee on Appropriations
Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington
Senate Committee on Finance, Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy
Committee assignments are subject to change
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