From left to right: Jeb Spaulding, Justin Johnson, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Hal Cohen
Updated at 6:38 p.m.
As he prepares for a challenging legislative session, Gov. Peter Shumlin filled two key administration positions Thursday afternoon.
Shumlin promoted Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Justin Johnson to the post of secretary of administration, a powerful position with authority over all areas of state government and its budget.
"He's the right man for this job right now," Shumlin said during a press conference Thursday afternoon in the governor’s ceremonial Statehouse office. “He knows how to get tough things done. He’s an honest broker with a history of bipartisanship and he has extraordinarily great, sound judgment.”
An Australian by birth, Johnson began his career as a journalist and then adviser and chief of staff to members of the Australian parliament. He has worked in Vermont state government since 2004 — first in the Agency of Agriculture and later as deputy commissioner and commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. He lives in Barre.
Making light of Johnson’s Aussie accent, Shumlin said, “We have required him to learn how to speak the English language, but everything else we have high hopes for.”
Johnson responded by introducing himself with a, “G’day, mate.”
As secretary of administration, Johnson replaces Jeb Spaulding, a former state treasurer and senator who's set to become chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges in January.
Shumlin praised Spaulding for his service to the state. The outgoing secretary called his four-year tenure in the governor’s office “the honor of my life.”
The governor also named Capstone Community Action executive director Hal Cohen to lead the massive Agency of Human Services, which includes the state’s health, mental health, corrections, disabilities and child protection departments.
The agency has been without a permanent leader since Shumlin fired former secretary Doug Racine in August. Commissioner of Health Harry Chen has been filling in on an interim basis ever since. Chen said Thursday he’d decided to return to the Department of Health in order to “play to [his] strengths,” which he called his “expertise” and “passion” for health.
Shumlin called Cohen “an incredibly competent manager with tremendous compassion for those who are struggling.”
A resident of Middlesex, Cohen has spent 18 years leading Capstone, which was formerly known as Central Vermont Community Action Council. The nonprofit human service organization provides food and heating assistance to low-income Vermonters and runs a variety of job training, weatherization and educational programs. It employs 180 people and serves 18,000 Vermonters in Washington, Lamoille and Orange counties.
Cohen said he “wasn’t sure” whether he was interested in taking the job until he looked at the agency’s mission statement.
“As soon as I read it, I said, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been doing all my life,’” he recalled.
“We have a tremendous safety net in Vermont, and it’s really important that we continue to have a strong safety net, and it’s really important that we strengthen our safety net,” Cohen said. “But one of the things that we also have to do is we have to think about how are we going to move people out of poverty and how are we going to get people so that they won’t need the safety net?”
Both Cohen and Johnson acknowledged the challenges they will face as the governor and legislature try to close a $100 million budget gap this winter. Asked whether he thought it was possible for AHS to continue to serve vulnerable Vermonters with less money available, Cohen said he thought so.
“I believe there’s room to make efficiencies,” he said. “There’s room to make other partnerships, and I’m hoping we’re going to find those kinds of solutions.”
Like his predecessor, Racine, Cohen hails from the low-income advocacy community. But he maintained that differences of opinion with the more fiscally moderate governor would not pose a problem.
“The governor and I — I’m sure there will be situations where we won’t agree, and I’ll then have the opportunity to try to convince him, and he’ll have the opportunity to convince me,” he said. “But in the end, I’m part of the team, and I’m going to do what’s best for the team.”
Would he advocate for Shumlin to raise more taxes instead of cutting services?
“I don’t know enough yet to answer that,” he said with a chuckle.
“You know, let me help you with that,” Shumlin said to laughter as he gently elbowed his way back to the podium.
“See, I’m getting smarter already,” Cohen joked.
“My first choice is to balance this budget challenge that we have without asking Vermonters to pay higher income taxes, sales taxes, rooms and meals taxes,” Shumlin said. “But sometimes I read accounts and I think, ‘Maybe I’m not speaking clearly,’ so let me be clear: I am not a tea party governor. I’m not a member of the tea party. I have never taken a ‘no tax’ pledge. I have just made very, very clear that my first choice is to do it without revenue, because I think that Vermont’s taxes are high enough.”
“I’ve never said I would never do revenue,” he continued. “There are times when governors have to do revenue. I’m hoping this is not my time.”