MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott’s attempts to restructure two sectors of state government by executive order have thus far failed to find sufficient support in the Vermont Legislature, with the state Senate turning down his Act 250 plan on Thursday and a House committee declining to back his public safety reorganizing proposal.
Last month, Scott issued two executive orders under a statute allowing the executive branch to reorganize government. The one turned down by the Senate, in a 22-8 vote on a resolution to disapprove, seeks to consolidate and streamline the governance of Act 250, the state’s landmark land use law, by reforming the Natural Resources board as a three-person body.
That vote came a day after the House Natural Resources Committee, by a 10-1 vote, approved a resolution declining Scott’s executive order placing several public safety agencies under a cabinet-level Agency of Public Safety. The full House is expected to vote on the resolution on Friday.
“Reorganizing the Natural Resource Board and modernizing Act 250 are imperative to better manage the issues we face today, including environmental stewardship and addressing climate change, economic growth and regional economic equity, and more,” Scott spokesman Jason Maulucci said of the Senate vote.
“We appreciate the bipartisan support for the Governor’s executive order, and also the Senate’s commitment to working with the Administration on these needed reforms. We look forward to engaging in these discussions,” Maulucci said.
In both chambers, members said they were uncomfortable with voting the orders up or down, with no opportunity to seek compromise or hammer out details. They said they would prefer to take up bills through the committee process, in which the administration and the Legislature can agree on common ground.
Thursday, Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee chairperson, told the full Senate that the committee’s evaluation “revealed a number of issues of concern” with Scott’s Act 250 proposal.
Bray also said the executive order lacks a number of important details, including the right to appeal decisions, the handling of recusals due to conflicts of interest, and the appointment of alternates. And he said the committee is concerned that the newly constituted Natural Resources Board would serve at the pleasure of the governor’s office, opening the door to possible political influence.
The vote largely followed partisan lines, with Democrats in the majority. Among Republicans, Sen Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, voted yes; among Democrats, Sens. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden, and Richard Mazza, D-Grand Isle, voted no.
All four Bennington and Windham county senators voted yes.
In the House Government Operations Committee, members said they were concerned about ambiguity in the bill, and about whether folding in the Criminal Justice Center under the agency would compromise the independence sought for that entity by the Legislature last year.
State Rep. Robert LaClair, R-Washington-2, the lone no vote, said it has always been Scott’s intent to work with the Legislature to address areas of concern. But he acknowledged that the committee’s questions were legitimate.
“I will be voting no, but I do support a lot of the committee’s concerns,” said LaClair, of Barre Town. “In some cases, there are more questions than answers.”