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Shumlin Names New Secretaries Of Administration, Human Services

Peter Hirschfeld
At a press conference Thursday, Justin Johnson accepts a gubernatorial appointment to become the next secretary of administration. Jeb Spaulding, the person he's replacing, looks on.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has filled two of the highest-profile cabinet positions in state government. And the new secretaries of administration and human services will try to help the Democratic governor navigate some of the toughest challenges of his political career.

Justin Johnson is an unassuming guy. And he’s worked quietly in the background of state government since Republican Gov. James Douglas named him deputy commissioner of environmental conservation back in 2006.

But there is one aspect to Johnson that makes him stand out in Montpelier – his Australian accent.

That Aussie brogue though is only one of Johnson’s calling cards, however. And as deputy secretary of natural resources over the past four years, Johnson has proven himself a useful lieutenant.

“He’s one of the people that we turn to to solve problems. And if you say to Justin, ‘Justin, we just got a call, we’ve got this problem, it’s tough,’ he quietly gets it done,” Shumlin says. “And it’s not done with a blaze of people who are left behind that are angry. That’s important.”

"With affordability on one side and all of the goals and activities of the agencies and departments on the other ... I think that in the short term is the biggest challenge, how to balance all that out." - Justin Johnson, who will replace Jeb Spaulding as secretary of administration

Shumlin and Johnson will have no shortage of problems over the next two years, not the least of which is an expected $100 million shortfall in next year’s budget. Shumlin says he prefers using budget cuts to balance the state ledger, though he’s increasingly opened the door to raising taxes to solve at least a portion of the fiscal dilemma.

“I have never said that I would never do revenue – there are times when governors have to do revenue," he said. "I’m hoping this is not my time.”

Johnson replaces outgoing Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, who is leaving his post to take a job as chancellor of the Vermont State College system.

“Obviously one of the governor’s goals is affordability, and so with affordability on one side and all of the goals and activities of the agencies and departments on the other, you’re sort of left to balance that out,” Johnson said. “So I think that in the short term is the biggest challenge, how to balance all that out.”

The other major appointment announced at Thursday’s press conference centered on the man who will have to figure out how to mitigate the impacts of whatever cuts Shumlin does decide to impose. New Secretary of Human Services Hal Cohen is leaving his post as director of Capstone Community Action, an organization in central Vermont that administers programs to poor and vulnerable residents.

"The governor and I, I'm sure there'll be situations where we won't agree. And I'll then have the opportunity to convince him, and he'll have the opportunity to convince me. But in the end, I'm part of the team." - Newly minted Secretary of Human Services Hal Cohen

As a human services advocate, Cohen has until recently been critic of some of the human services cuts proposed by Shumlin. Cohen was especially vocal earlier this year about a Shumlin proposal to cut $2 million from a program that helps low-income homeowners improve the energy efficiency of their residences.

Though Cohen said he and the governor will differ on policy from time Cohen, he says he’s eager to have a seat at the administration’s table.

“I’m sure there’ll be situations where we won’t agree. And I’ll then have the opportunity to convince him, and he’ll have the opportunity to convince me,” Cohen said. “But in the end, I’m part of the team. And I’m going to do what’s best for the team.”

Cohen replaces interim Human Services Secretary Harry Chen, who will go back to his job leading the Department of Health.

Before moving to the United States, Justin Johnson formerly worked as an executive of a large municipal government in Australia.  

Both men will begin serving in their new roles shortly after the New Year.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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