Keeping up with all things legislative can be a nigh-on-impossible task for reporters, lobbyists, state agency officials and even veteran lawmakers during any given session, but it’s an even more daunting endeavor in the first year of a legislative biennium that also happens to coincide with the installation of a new governor.
This year there is not only an untested cadre of neophyte lawmakers, just-appointed agency officials and newly-named legislative chairs to follow, all of whom are getting used to their new-found power, there is also a challenging lineup of aggressive legislative agenda items and an executive branch budget proposal that has already been described, sight unseen, as austere.
Though the state’s yawning budget gap of $150 million will loom over most legislation this session, there are other all-consuming topics in the hopper that will likely dominate the group- think psyche of the Golden Bubble.
The countdown has begun with week one already relegated to an inaugural blur. Week 2 and 3 promise to be filled with the haze of long-awaited study reports, a much-anticipated tax revenue forecast and introductory sessions with experts. Once the smoke has cleared, lawmakers will have the information they need to get to work.
Here is a rundown of the big-ticket items lawmakers will be considering this session: difficult budget-cutting decisions; proposed structural changes to the state’s tax system; an overhaul of the state’s complicated and expensive health care system; a renewed effort to restructure the government bureaucracy under Challenges for Change or some other moniker; the implications of closing the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant; education quality reforms; pre-kindergarten education initiatives; and changes to the public records law.
This week’s itinerary touches on a number of these topics – and enough else to make a curious policy watcher’s head spin. Day in and day out, the House Appropriations Committee will be focused on the machinations of the Budget Adjustment Act. On Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., the Senate will hold a memorial service for the late David Gibson, the longtime secretary of the Senate who died last August. Adjutant General Michael Dubie will give an 11 a.m. briefing to a joint legislative session about the Vermont National Guard deployment to Afghanistan. The afternoon is given over to party caucuses, as well as committee meetings on a range of topics, including redistricting, Medicaid 101, international treaties, Native American rights and an overview of tax exemptions.
On Wednesday at 8 a.m., the Government Accountability Committee will introduce its 100+ page report on Challenges for Change. At 10:30 a.m., Sen. Vince Illuzzi will pitch a bill to help Fairpoint, which is emerging from bankruptcy, get back into the telecommunications game. On the heels of Illuzzi’s presser, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund will release its Farm-to-Plate report at 11 a.m., followed by a joint legislative hearing.
Thursday is the high-water mark. From 1:15 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., the House Appropriations Committee will hold a public hearing on the Budget Adjustment Act. The Vermont Blue Ribbon Tax Commission will present its findings at 1:30 p.m. before the House Ways and Means Committee. That evening, starting at 5 p.m., the Government Accountability Committee will hold a hearing on the Challenges for Change report.
On Friday at 1 p.m., the Emergency Board will meet to discuss the state’s revenues, and at 2 p.m. they’ll hear the revenue forecast from Tom Kavet, the economist and consultant to the Joint Fiscal Office — sans Jeffrey Carr, the economist who worked for the Douglas administration.
If you’re expecting things to slow down the next few weeks after that, think again. On Jan. 19, Dr. William Hsiao will present three options for health care reform. Less than a week later, on Jan. 25, Gov. Peter Shumlin will give his budget address.
BOLDSen. Bill Doyle released from the hospital
Doyle, 84, checked into the emergency room on Thursday with what he thought were chest pains related to a heart condition last Thursday. “I was relieved to be told I had pneumonia,” Doyle said in a phone interview.
After a five-day stay at Central Vermont Medical Center, the senator from Montpelier was released on Monday afternoon. Doyle, who relies on a walker to get around the Statehouse, reported, “I feel as strong as a bull moose.”
Typically a ubiquitous presence at the Statehouse, Doyle was notably absent during the legislative doings at the end of last week. The Vermont Senate announced committee assignments on Friday, and he was selected for the Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs – for
the first time since he began representing the Washington Senate District in 1969.
Reached by phone as he was checking out of the hospital, the professor of political science at Johnson State College said he’s eager to review his students’ reports on Douglas’ farewell remarks and Shumlin’s inaugural address. He’ll be back in the Senate tomorrow, he says.
Doyle is the Senate Minority Leader.
BOLD You’ve come a long way, baby
Women may make up half of humanity, and at last count are responsible for 100 percent of the pregnancies that perpetuate the human race, but when it comes to the realm political power, they’re still underrepresented. It’s just a question of how woefully.
In Congress, women make up roughly 17 percent of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Women represent more than double that percentage in Vermont — 36.6 percent of the Vermont Senate and 38 percent of the Vermont House of Representatives – and they hold more of the most important offices in the legislative branch than ever, even though the highest office of governor has been occupied by a woman only once in more than 200 years.
Despite their ongoing, overall minority status in the Legislature and in statewide office (only Beth Pearce, the new state treasurer, will represent the fairer sex among the constitutional officers), women have been appointed to more than 50 percent of the chair seats in the House and Senate Shap Smith said he has appointed more women to the chairs of legislative committees than any other House speaker. For the first time, women will lead eight out of 14 committees in the House. In the Senate, women will be in charge of six out of 11 committees.
Janet Ancel is the first woman to be elected to chair of House Ways and Means Committee. Her nomination to the post means that all of the “money chairs” will be women — the head of Senate Appropriations, Jane Kitchel; Ann Cummings, the head of Senate Finance; and Martha Heath, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
Ancel, who has served as tax commissioner and a member of the Legislative Council, quipped: “Thank goodness there is still a glass ceiling left….In some ways, I’d rather it wasn’t a big deal because it would
mean women are where they need to be.”
Ancel recalled that when she first started working at the Statehouse for the Legislative Council in the early 1970s, there was only one bathroom for women — on the first floor. Not to mention the fact that persons of the female gender were barred from wearing pants on the floor of the Senate and the House.
“When you put it in context, this is a big deal,” Ancel said.
Back then, Gov. Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s only woman governor, struggled with male entrenchment. When she was chair of House Appropriations in the 1970s, she struggled with overt chauvinism. Her turn came to serve as chair of the Joint Fiscal Committee and the three ranking male members orchestrated a demotion – they offered her the role of secretary, which she refused.
“We’ve come a long way since that time,” Heath said.
In the here and now, Cummings doesn’t think the advent of four women on the Emergency Board for the first time in the state’s history is a big deal. After all, three women have been on the board for several years.
“The fact that no one’s noticed (the trio) means we’ve done a good job,” Cummings said.
Kitchel said four women in key committee chairs is unusual. “To me this is an example of women moving into leadership positions,” she said.