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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

Political notes from Free Press staff writers Terri Hallenbeck, Sam Hemingway and Nancy Remsen



Tuesday buzz: Return of the Leggie

First thing: a few changes

All is now ready for the Legislature’s return. Two staffers made sure the glass panels at the Statehouse entrances sparkled and the Statehouse curator straightened portraits and adjusted the velvet draperies in the governor’s ceremonial office.

House Republicans caucus at 9:30 a.m. _ before the House is called into session at 10 a.m. _ to select a new assistant leader. The sole candidate is Rep. John Morley of Barton. Morley replaces Rep. Patricia McDonald, R-Berlin, who stepped down because she wants more time to focus on running for the Senate.

When House members take their seats, House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, will announce a few changes in the makeup of committees as a result of resignations, Morley’s role shift and two recent deaths.

Morley has served on the House Appropriations Committee, which requires more time and attention than he can give as assistant House Republican leader. He will have a new assignment, but Smith wasn’t ready to announce it Monday.

Replacing Morley on Appropriations is Rep. Phil Winters, R-Williamstown.

Winters leaves House Ways and Means, so Rep. William Johnson, R-Canaan, move to that seat from House General, Housing and Military Affairs.

Peg Flory of Pittsford has been appointed to fill a Senate seat vacated by Hull Maynard. She was serving on the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre, who has been a member of the House Institutions Committee, replaces Flory on Judiciary.

Flory takes her oath and seat in the Senate shortly after 10 a.m. Two new House members also will be sworn in Tuesday morning. Adam Howard replaces Rep. Rich Westman, R-Cambridge, who became tax commissioner. Butch Shaw replaces Flory.

Smith will announce their committee assignments plus Morley’s this morning. The options include House General, Institutions, Health Care, Ways and Means or Transportation.

There are five openings because two legislators died suddenly just before Christmas – Rep. Ira Trombley, D-Grand Isle, and Rep. Rick Hube, R-South Londonderry. Gov. Jim Douglas has yet to interview possible replacements. David Coriell, the governor’s spokesman, said the earliest the governor could make those appointments would be next week.

Flory’s move to the Senate means some shuffling of committee members there as well. Senate leadership wasn’t prepared to detail the changes Monday afternoon, but the new assignments – affecting several senators -- will be announced shortly after the Senate convenes.

Is your head spinning yet?

-- Nancy Remsen

Opening day

After lawmakers kiss and hug following six months of separation, and the House and Senate complete their organizational business, lawmakers launch into some heavy stuff.

Senators have been invited to the House chamber to hear a briefing on the National Guard deployment to Afghanistan from Adjutant General Michael Dubie.

Day One also includes a presentation of restructuring options that could save state government $35 million-$50 million. A steering committee unveils the "challenges" to the Joint Legislative Government Accountability Committee following Dubie’s Guard briefing.

The restructuring presentation should put a buzz in the building, as the purpose is to see government from a new rather than traditional perspective.

-- Nancy Remsen

Getting down to it

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, said he expects House committees to get off to a fast start – this being the second year of the two-year session.

One panel could vote out a bill by Friday. That would be House Transportation, which begins work Wednesday on a bill that would allow heavier trucks on Vermont’s interstate highways.

A change in law is necessary now that Congress passed a law allowing a one-year pilot test in Vermont to allow large trucks to travel the interstates. Many states already allow heavier trucks on interstates because of waivers or grandfather provisions from federal restrictions.

"We are going to try to hear from everyone, have some discussion and hopefully kick it over to the Senate," said newly appointed Transportation Chairman Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester. "It is important," he said, noting that the federal trial period has already begun.

Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, has also submitted a bill on the Senate side. "I expect quick action," he said, noting the Senate has previously voted unanimously on various measures calling for allowing heavier trucks.

"We want to get these trucks off town and village streets," Illuzzi said.

Other bills on fast tracks include a measure to move the primary election and legislation making mid-year changes to the budget. Smith said he’d like to see the budget bill on the House floor by the end of next week so the House Appropriations Committee’s calendar is clear when Gov. Jim Douglas delivers his budget Jan. 21.

-- Nancy Remsen

Senate briefings

To avoid repetitive committee presentations, Senate leadership has scheduled two, two-hour briefings on some of the big issues facing lawmakers.

Wednesday afternoon, beginning at 1 p.m., senators hear from their chief fiscal adviser, Steve Klein, and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille. Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, may also answer questions about the government restructuring options as she served on the steering committee that developed the proposals.

Thursday beginning at 10 a.m., senators gather again to hear recommendations from a retirement commission and a panel studying how to remedy the looming deficit in the unemployment insurance fund. Legislative staff also will offer observations about the potential impact of federal health reform legislation.

-- Nancy Remsen


Fifteen labor unions offered their backing to Vermont Yankee at a Statehouse news conference Monday. The move is sure to make some of those who oppose relicensing of the nuclear power plant uncomfortable because many of them are people who strongly support labor unions.

George Clain, president of the IBEW Local 300, said the union represents 160 Vermont Yankee electrical workers and mechanics and they want to keep their jobs. Vermont Yankee employs 640 workers for an an average of $81,000 a year, he said, a salary not easily replaced if the plant closes when its license expires in 2012.

"We already have enough people unemployed," Clain said.

The move was meant to put legislators, who have a say in whether VY continues, on the spot.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who supports unions but not Vermont Yankee relicensing, shrugged it off. He likened the power plant to other industries that inevitably yield to progress. "There’s an evolutionary process," he said. "This is the horse and buggy vs. the automobile."

The union representatives defending Vermont Yankee were not buying the notion that it needs replacing or that the green-energy jobs that might replace it would pay as well.

The union’s stance made some of their counterparts uncomfortable too. Traven Leyshon, president of the Green Mountain Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, was quick to point out that not all the local unions within the Vermont AFL-CIO coalition agree on Vermont Yankee. "We’ve got a tactical difference," he said.

Leyshon said he doesn’t consider Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp. a socially responsible company and wants the state to help the plant’s workers retrain for new jobs, and he suggested Entergy should pay for that retraining. "We’ve got to plan for the future," he said.

Obviously, Vermont Yankee is making a big push to focus on the jobs that would be lost if the plant closes. That has prompted some opponents to argue that not all those jobs are filled by Vermonters, what with the plant’s proximity to Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Some 290 of the plant’s workers are Vermonters, Entergy Nuclear Vice President Jay Thayer said.

Some opponents suggest that reduces the size of Vermont Yankee’s imprint on the Vermont economy and deflates the argument that Vermont can’t afford not to relicense the plant. Thayer argued that payroll taxes for all of them go to Vermont.

--Terri Hallenbeck

Dubie’s principles

In a speech Monday to the Burlington Rotary Club, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie – Republican candidate for governor -- laid out three principles he said should guide lawmakers’ decisions about legislation.

First, he said all proposed legislation must have a positive impact on jobs and job creation. Would a texting ban be off the table under Dubie’s principles?

Second, he said the Legislature must reduce demands on taxpayers by reducing the size of government. Legislation that adds programs and increases the size and cost of government must be rejected. Restructuring and reduction is a given, but what about a new, better program? Certainly Gov. Jim Douglas offered a few over the years – scholarships and broadband expansion come to mind. Is Dubie really saying all new ideas are off the table?

Finally, Dubie said all state government programs, existing and new, must be evaluated and judged as sustainable. They must carry a high-enough priority to merit an identifiable revenue source that will sustain them over the long term. So what does Dubie mean by sustainable? He talks about "identifiable revenue sources" – but being able to name a tax doesn’t insure the money will always be there, right? When the economy sinks, once dependable taxes such as sales and income shrivel. When people stop smoking, cigarette taxes shrink. When people change their driving habits, gasoline taxes evaporate. What makes a revenue source sustainable?

-- Nancy Remsen

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