Leahy’s Departure From the U.S. Senate Could Stanch the Flow of Federal Cash to Vermont | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Leahy’s Departure From the U.S. Senate Could Stanch the Flow of Federal Cash to Vermont

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Published December 21, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Burlington High School students learning to repair aircraft don't have a top-flight educational environment: Their classroom is a leased former auto parts store off Williston Road. The planes and helicopters they work on are crammed into an aging, poorly insulated hangar at Burlington International Airport.

And while interest in aviation careers has soared, and companies such as South Burlington's Beta Technologies are planning the future of electric flight, Burlington Technical Center's aviation and aerospace program hasn't kept up with industry innovation.

In March, the program landed a federal grant that could change all that.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the U.S. Senate's longest-serving member and chair of its powerful Appropriations Committee, announced that he had helped the technical education program secure a $10 million award to build a new center to train the next generation of aviation technicians. It was the largest of the $167 million in federal earmarks that Leahy secured this year for dozens of Vermont nonprofits, schools and community organizations.

Though deeply grateful for the award, Jason Reed, the tech center's director, wonders where game-changing federal grants will come from now that the state's chief champion in Washington, D.C., is retiring.

"It would be hard to replicate those funds without Sen. Leahy's support," Reed told Seven Days.

Across Vermont, dozens of public and private organizations are reckoning with the loss of their most powerful federal benefactor and what it means for their respective fiscal futures.

"Sen. Leahy is economic development in Vermont, and our state will feel the loss of his presence in Washington," said David Bradbury, president of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. Leahy's retirement after 48 years in the Senate will be "a massive economic shock" to the state, affecting everything from housing to conservation to lake cleanup efforts to the arts and more, Bradbury predicted.

His organization received $9 million this year thanks to an earmark Leahy supported. The funds will be invested in helping tech companies grow. Bradbury is hoping for another $8 million soon to help expand the organization's business incubation space in downtown Burlington.

Champlain College has also gotten used to Leahy's advocacy. It received a $756,000 grant this year to expand its cybersecurity department, which the school renamed the Leahy Center for Digital Forensics & Cybersecurity in 2011 after receiving a previous federal grant.

When the guy whose name is on the center is no longer approving the grants, that's not good, acknowledged Joseph Williams, the center's director.

"It could be harder, because a lot of people apply for these appropriations," Williams said. "Having kind of a champion for Vermont does help a lot."

Should the federal funds dry up, the school would likely have to expand its fundraising efforts or rely more heavily on contracts with organizations that pay for cybersecurity services, he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy with President Carter in the Oval Office, 1980 - COURTESY OF THE OFFICE OF SEN. LEAHY
  • Courtesy Of The Office Of Sen. Leahy
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy with President Carter in the Oval Office, 1980

Champlain and other organizations are right to be concerned, according to Luke Albee, a former Leahy chief of staff who is now a Washington, D.C., lobbyist. It is difficult to overstate the advantage that Leahy's role as Appropriations chair has meant for Vermont, he said. While committee assignments have yet to be made, it looks likely that Vermont will not even have a seat on the committee.

The delegation could still be effective but will have lost some clout.

"You can get the job done with a wooden spoon, but it's just a lot easier if you have a snowblower," Albee said.

Others have less dire predictions for a post-Leahy landscape. They see federal support for the causes he championed remaining robust for years.

"It's not like the state is going to be cut out entirely without a strong, influential, experienced guy in there," said Tom Kavet, the economist for the Vermont legislature. So much money is pouring out of Washington from the $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act and the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, he said, that Vermont will see benefits for years to come.

"The fact is, even if [senator-elect] Peter Welch were Superman and started funneling all kinds of more money in," Kavet said, "it would probably be a drop in the bucket compared to what's gushing over the state right now." Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) will be sworn in to succeed Leahy in the Senate next month.

Vermont won the second-highest number of earmarks per capita for 2022, according to an analysis by CQ Roll Call: $207 million, or $321 per resident — lagging behind only Alaska, which got $339 per person.

A more lasting win for Vermont, however, may be the way Leahy has ensured that states with small populations are not shortchanged by strict per-capita funding formulas, according to Adam Greshin, state commissioner of Finance & Management. Small states often lack the infrastructure of larger ones and therefore need extra funds to help build capacity to achieve federal goals, he said.

Leahy used this kind of approach to astonishing effect in spring 2020, when Vermont received $1.25 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund — $1 billion more than if the formula had been based solely on the state's 645,000 population, as some other states advocated, Greshin said.

"I'm convinced that were it not for having someone not only in the room but at the head of the table, that may not have happened," he said.

While he's concerned about a possible falloff in federal dollars, Greshin thinks the embarrassment of riches the state has enjoyed on Leahy's watch "will dissipate but not disappear."

Welch called Leahy "irreplaceable" but also noted that Leahy and his staff worked to ensure the sustainability of much of the federal funding to Vermont organizations by embedding it in programs that enjoy broad support.

For example, Leahy was instrumental in creating the Northern Border Regional Commission in 2008 to help coordinate federal economic development efforts in parts of northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

The commission was initially underfunded and poorly understood. But over time, it demonstrated its effectiveness in directing federal dollars where they were most needed, according to Chris Saunders, a former Leahy staffer who now cochairs the commission.

Today the group distributes $36 million a year — including $5.8 million to Vermont projects in 2022 — and enjoys long-term support among the governors of the four states. There's also support from members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Saunders said, noting that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is set to become vice chair of the committee and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) is moving up in seniority.

"If past support is indicative of interest in our work, we have some very clear champions that will be positioned to help the future of the commission," Saunders said.

Another organization particularly adept at attracting federal support is the University of Vermont. In 2022 alone, Leahy obtained five earmarks totaling $24.3 million for the Burlington institution. The money will fund an array of programs, including $4 million for solar energy research and $2.6 million to support semiconductor workforce development. The biggest chunk was $9.3 million for a new Institute for Rural Partnerships, which aims to help the transit, workforce and infrastructure needs of rural communities. Leahy has also requested $30 million in 2023 to help the school expand its honors program.

In a press release last week announcing the new Rural Partnerships institute, university officials gushed about Leahy's leadership and legacy. But school officials were vague about how UVM plans to navigate without Leahy, saying they will continue to pursue various research grants.

"He and his staff have ensured that much of our programmatic funding occurs in conjunction with higher education partners that will allow UVM research to be healthy for years to come," university officials said in a statement.

Albee said he doesn't share that rosy view.

"To quote Joni Mitchell, 'You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone,'" Albee said. "To think that this is only going to be a blip for Vermont is wishful thinking."

Sen. Patrick Leahy with then-mayor Bernie Sanders in Burlington, 1982 - COURTESY OF THE OFFICE OF SEN. LEAHY
  • Courtesy Of The Office Of Sen. Leahy
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy with then-mayor Bernie Sanders in Burlington, 1982

Anson Tebbetts, state agriculture secretary, holds out hope that funding for programs Leahy valued will prove durable.

"We will miss his leadership in Washington, but he has planted many seeds that will germinate and grow for many years to come related to agriculture," Tebbetts said.

The Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, which Leahy helped establish in 2021 to assist the struggling industry, serves dairy interests in 10 states, ensuring the kind of broad political support necessary for long-term viability, Tebbetts said.

"We know there is going to be change," he said of Leahy's retirement, "but I think some of the programs he's developed and taken care of are working and the Senate will continue to fund them."

Others in Vermont are hopeful that Welch, a member of the U.S. House since 2006, could prove as effective as Leahy over time. He'll be in the congressional delegation with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Becca Balint, who will be sworn in as Vermont's only representative next month.

"He's not going in green," Heather Furman, state director of the Nature Conservancy, said of Welch. "He's probably the most savvy junior senator out there."

Earlier this year, Leahy secured an $8.5 million appropriation for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to acquire the conservancy's 3,500-acre Glebe Mountain Natural Area in southern Vermont. Furman pointed out that Welch has served as Vermont's sole at-large congressman for 15 years and has demonstrated his strong commitment to land conservation.

Welch expressed confidence that the delegation will be able to do right by Vermont even without holding a powerful chairmanship. He recalled how, after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, he was able to build a bipartisan coalition to help the state recover even though he hadn't been in Congress long and didn't serve on any disaster-related committees.

"Any representative whose district had a whiff of wind from Irene, I called them," Welch said.

He'll use a similar approach in the Senate and work closely with Sanders to carry on the programs and principles such as the small-state minimums that Leahy championed.

When federal funding is embedded in agency budgets, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Lake Champlain Basin Program, which coordinates clean water funding in the region, it's easier for lawmakers to keep that money flowing year after year, Welch said.

Albee, the Washington lobbyist, agrees and thinks Welch has the experience, relationships and skilled staff to help him advocate effectively for Vermont.

"But what he won't have," Albee said, "is a gavel."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Retiring Rainmaker | Leahy's departure from his powerful perch in the U.S. Senate could stanch the flow of federal cash to Vermont"