As Vermont Lawmakers Reconvene, A Call To 'Get To Work'
Vermont Lawmakers returned to Montpelier on Tuesday to kickoff the 2016 legislative session. The proceedings included all the ceremonial pleasantries that accompany opening day, but legislators will have to tackle some contentious and uncomfortable issues from the outset.
Senate President John Campbell stood on the Senate floor Monday morning to offer his customary welcome to returning lawmakers. It didn’t take him long to turn to the business at hand.
“You know, this year we have a lot of issues that we’re going to be dealing with that are going to be, some controversial, some very difficult to deal with here in this chamber,” Campbell said. “And I would ask that as always, we treat each other with respect and courtesy, even if our views might not be the same.”
That difficulty Campbell referred to comes in the presence of Franklin Sen. Norm McAllister, the Republican lawmaker charged with multiple counts of sexual assaults at the end of the last legislative session.
McAllister arrived to the Statehouse early Tuesday morning, roaming the halls alone and silent. He was the first to take his seat in the Senate chamber. He said his goal was a simple one.
“Get through the day,” he said.
McAllister said he doesn’t enjoy the attention that accompanied his return.
“It’s a little uncomfortable,” McAllister said. “But I’ll get over it.”
Many of his Senate colleagues are hoping he won’t. The full Senate will consider a resolution Wednesday afternoon that would suspend McAllister with pay from his legislative duties. It isn’t the outright expulsion many have called for. But Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning said even suspension isn’t a sure thing.
“I think there’s enough votes to pass the resolution, but I haven’t done a headcount,” Benning said. “I would say it’s never over ‘til it’s over.”
Resolving the McAllister saga isn’t the only major business facing Senate lawmakers, who will immediately begin tackling marijuana legalization, conflict over renewable energy siting and other divisive issues.
A bill calling for the taxation and regulation of marijuana was introduced Tuesday and will head directly to the Senate Judiciary Committee – not to the Senate Committee on Government Operations, as the bill’s drafters had initially planned.
Bennington Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he plans to begin taking testimony on the bill next Tuesday. He said he’ll call for multiple public hearings on the issue in locations around the state, “so we can see how constituents really feel about this proposal.”
And while the House may not have a disgraced colleague in its midst, that chamber will have to resolve a host of confounding budget challenges. Hartford Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie delivered the opening day devotional in the House. Things are going to get tough soon enough, he said.
“So I thought that it was very appropriate to just start with the state song,” Christie said.
Lyrics to the "These Green Mountains” had been placed on lawmakers desks earlier in the morning. The chamber singalong proved an apt lead in to a speech from House Speaker Shap Smith, who said lawmakers’ work in 2016 is for the sake of the children who call this state home.
“So, today, let’s get to work to ensure all Vermonters have the same opportunity for a better future that we’ve had,” Smith said.
How to realize that better future will of course be a matter of debate. House Minority Leader Don Turner says he appreciates the spirit of the Speaker’s call to action. He says Democrats are going to have to change their fiscal ways if they want it to mean anything.
“You know, the Speaker talked about hope and prosperity and all that, and I believe that. I think that Vermont has a future,” Turner said. “But today, if we don’t make some tough decision this session, it’s going to be even bleaker next year.”
Lawmakers will have their hands full in 2016 with more than just the attention-grabbing issues of legalization, McAllister and the budget.
Lawmakers have already introduced more than 100 bills in the Senate, dealing with issues including: equal pay; on-farm distilleries for maple spirits; overhauling the district consolidation law, called Act 46; and financial support for state colleges. One bill would allow for operation of all-terrain vehicles on state highways, under limited circumstances.
Lawmakers have introduced eight bills in the House, including one that would make it easier for municipalities to lower speed limits on town highways.
Even in this first week, lawmakers will get down to serious business. The Senate Finance Committee will take testimony Wednesday afternoon on legislation that would strip administrative duties for Vermont Health Connect away from state government, and transfer them to the private carriers - MVP and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont - that sell insurance on the exchange.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up a wide-ranging privacy protection bill that deals with everything from drones to license plate readers. And the Senate Committee on Natural Resources will dig into what promises to be a divisive debate over renewable energy siting in Vermont. One lawmaker has already introduced legislation that would ban outright “industrial” scale turbines on Vermont ridgelines.
With Election Day 2016 on the horizon in November, Smith said outsiders will read politics into all legislative actions. Two lawmakers – Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram and Chittenden Sen. David Zuckerman – are running in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who presides over the Vermont Senate, is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. And every member of the House and Senate is up for reelection in local races.
"There will be those who will suggest that because it is an election year, we will focus on politics and not on those kids and the people's business,” Smith said. “I reject that idea."
Scott, for his part, said he won’t leverage his role as lieutenant governor as a bully pulpit for his campaign for governor.
“I don’t think there has been any difference for me. My priority is being lieutenant governor and presiding over the Senate at this point,” Scott said. “This is my sixth year as lieutenant governor, and I don’t think you’ll see much of a change. I’m very consistent, and I take my job seriously and I take this position seriously.”
Update 4 p.m. Jan. 5, 2015 This post has been updated to include expanded reporting.