New year. New legislative biennium. New governor. Everything indicates it’s time for a fresh start in Montpelier, except many of the issues facing lawmakers are the same old, same old: major budget shortfalls, health care reform and the closure of Vermont Yankee.
Republicans and Democrats are starting the session with exactly the same-sized caucuses as in the previous biennium: Democrats have 94 members; the GOP’s got 48. There are still five Progressives and three independents. The Senate will have one less Dem, but the party will still hold a commanding 22-8 advantage over the GOP.
There’s one big difference between Montpelier today and two years ago: The governor will have a “D” after his name instead of an “R.” Despite being outnumbered by the opposition, Gov. Jim Douglas proved to be a formidable politician. During his eight years in office, he vetoed 19 pieces of legislation, only two of which lawmakers overturned. One historic veto override enacted same-sex marriage; the other put in place a state budget designed by the legislature.
A guy who helped orchestrate those veto overrides — outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin — will be sworn in as governor on January 6. John Campbell, formerly Senate majority leader, will take Shumlin’s place in the Senate as president pro tem.
Veto overrides are less likely to happen now that one party rules the roost. Shumlin-sanctioned bills can pass with 76 votes in the 150-member House. In the 30-member Senate, the magic number is 16.
But House Speaker Shap Smith doesn’t expect having a like-minded governor will make his job any easier and doesn’t want bills to “limp out of the House” with a mere 76 votes. “One of the challenges is trying to keep people together,” said Smith. “That was a challenge for us in the last two years, and I expect it to continue to be a challenge for us.”
Shumlin backers, including lawmakers and activists, have expectations: that each of their pet programs will be spared, for one thing. That’s wishful thinking in a state that is running a $150 million deficit with no incoming federal stimulus funds to ease this year’s pain.
Committee assignments won’t be announced officially until the first week of the session. Smith forecasts that current committee chairs will remain the same — and he should know, since he’s making the decisions — except on one committee: House Health Care.
Its chair, Rep. Steve Maier (D-Middlebury), retired after the last session. His successor is likely to be Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington), the current vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
On the Senate side, at least three committees will have new chairs as a result of vacancies caused by the November elections. Sen. Susan Bartlett, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee and ran for governor, is working for her former competitor Shumlin as a special assistant and policy advisor. Sen. Doug Racine, who chaired Health and Welfare and also ran for gov, is the new secretary of the Agency of Human Services. Sen. Phil Scott (R-Washington), former chair of institutions, is now lt. gov.-elect.
Campbell said the three-person Committee on Committees — composed of himself, Scott and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) — has been discussing various leadership scenarios but won’t make any official announcements until the new year.
The Senate is getting six new members — one-fifth of its membership. But none of the freshman senators is exactly a “newbie”: Sen.-elect Anthony Pollina is a Washington County veteran of statewide politics and grassroots activism, as evidenced by his Democrat, Progressive and Working Families Party labels; Sen.-elect Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) is a former U.S. diplomat who’s worked in Bosnia and Iraq; Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) chairs the Vermont Human Rights Commission; Sen.-elect Rich Westman (R-Lamoille) is a former tax commissioner and longtime member of the House; Sen.-elect Sally Fox (D-Chittenden), a former Statehouse lobbyist, was also in the House, where she ran the powerful Appropriations Committee; Sen.-elect Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) is a school-board member and blogs about politics on his own Vermont Daily Briefing.
“The key for us will be to truly strike a balance on these committees and make sure the best people are in place,” said Campbell. “We’ve got a lot of talented people.”
Translation: The Senate’s full of strong personalities. Campbell has his work cut out for him.
Vermont Yankee Ingenuity
Entergy’s got a strange sense of timing. At the start of both of the past two legislative sessions, as Vermont lawmakers were preparing to debate the future of the state’s sole nuclear power plant, its owners announced major leaks at the facility.
Can’t wait to see what they have in store for this January. It’s do or die for Entergy, which would like to see the legislature reverse its decision to oppose relicensure beyond 2012 — the date it was originally scheduled for decommissioning.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission wants to keep VY open, but it won’t happen without legislative approval.
Entergy is planning a full-court press this session. Expect news of a power “deal” sometime in the first few months — VY will offer the state a low rate as an incentive. Utilities rejected Entergy’s last offer because it was more than they currently pay for the nuke plant’s power.
By the end of January, ISO New England, which manages the flow and sale of electrons on the New England power grid, will issue a reliability study — the first assessment, from a New England system operator, of the impact VY’s closure would have on the region. A second study by ISO New England will examine closure scenarios.
Wanna wager both reports will say VY’s closure would be bad for reliability?
Another possibility: A new entity takes over Vermont Yankee. A potential new owner, Exelon, just announced it was shutting down a New Jersey nuke plant because it didn’t want to make the necessary investments in environmental remediation.
“Any company that buys this plant from Entergy is a company that is already like Entergy,” said lobbyist Bob Stannard, who is working for the antinuke group Citizens Awareness Network. “In that case, we’d just be replacing one lying bunch of weasels with another lying bunch of weasels.”
It’s hard to imagine the nuclear-power industry rolling over and playing dead for a little legislature in Vermont. The last message it wants to send to the rest of the country is that individual states, and not the folks at the NRC, have the power to shut down nuclear power plants.
Campbell is ready. “I think we’re going to get pressure,” he said. “But we took a vote last year and nothing’s happened since then that’s changed my mind.”
During his gubernatorial campaign, candidate Peter Shumlin promised to deliver a single-payer health care system in Vermont. Can he make it happen?
Health care consultant Dr. William Hsiao will present three options to lawmakers... and a model of Hsiao’s own design. Hsiao told lawmakers this month a true overhaul of Vermont’s health care system could take 10 to 12 years — maybe more.
Criminy. That means Shumlin’s going to have to get reelected six times to keep his promise. He’ll need to stay in good health.
Reform supporters are planning a health care rally for the legislature’s opening day.
“In general, we’re incredibly excited,” said James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, which is lobbying for a single-payer system through its “Healthcare is a Human Right” campaign. “We’re going to continue to build on the necessary grassroots movement to ensure this happens in 2011,” he added.
To make it happen, though, the state will need to receive federal “waivers.” All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation have said they’ll lobby the Obama administration to get that done.
Cash and Stash
When Gov. Jim Douglas leaves office, he’s taking his trusty veto pen with him. That means lawmakers will likely reform Vermont’s campaign-finance laws.
Twice during his tenure, Douglas vetoed bills setting contribution limits and updating the state’s arcane finance laws.
Expect bills designed to make campaign-finance reports more user friendly, timely and descriptive. One might require contributors to list their occupation and employer. Another could allow candidates to file reports electronically rather than on paper. How 21st century.
Another topic that might stand a chance now is the decriminalization of marijuana — an issue Shumlin backed on the campaign trail.
Rep. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington) released a study earlier this month detailing the cost to taxpayers of investigating and prosecuting small marijuana-possession cases. Roughly $700,000.
“It’s time for a smarter approach,” said Lorber.
Don’t Look Back
Gov. Jim Douglas, who was first elected to the Vermont House in 1972, is bidding adieu to 30 years of public service.
What kind of “legacy” is he leaving?
To supporters, he’s the fiscal steward who kept liberal Democrats from bankrupting the state, made tough cuts to state government and never met a ribbon he didn’t want to cut.
To detractors, he was a governor who made a lot of promises but kept few of them, and never did much more than, well, govern. No big initiatives, no landmark policy victory — although he did take a stab at curbing regional greenhouse gases and reforming health care.
The biggest blemish on Douglas’ record is likely to be the veto of same-sex marriage. For that, he may wind up on the wrong side of history.
Will the gov be satisfied teaching at Middlebury College, his alma mater? That remains to be seen, but I suspect Vermont voters have not seen the last of Douglas as a candidate or elected official.