Leaving the Golden Dome: State reps who won’t be back

Some members of the Legislature and its staff heard the final gavel of their Statehouse career on Saturday. The service of all representatives and senators continues at the pleasure of voters in November, of course, but some have already indicated that they will not be back.

The following collection of profiles of people moving on is not intended to be comprehensive; some people may be keeping their intentions to leave the Legislature to themselves until after the session is over. These are the state reps I caught up with who confirmed that they are leaving. Tomorrow, VTDigger will publish profiles of senators and staff who are moving on.

Joe Acinapura, R-Brandon

Appointed to the Legislature when his predecessor, Bob Wood, died in office, Acinapura has served since the 2006 session. While many people talk about spending more time with their families when leaving the Legislature, it seems to be especially true for Acinapura. He has stayed in Montpelier during sessions, and he said of his wife, “She doesn’t want to just sit at home, so she goes down to a nice little place we bought in Florida. She’s been down there since January.” He’ll be reuniting with his wife and spending time with his two daughters and five grandaughters — plus fishing and playing golf.

Rep. Joe Acinapura, R-Brandon

Introducing legislation was not his big priority, Acinapura said, though he has co-sponsored a lot of bills (20 this session). “I did not come here being issue driven, where I had to get legislation through. I don’t think government solves all the problems. Luckily I was assigned to the Appropriations Committee, where I can look at all of government.”

Acinapura spent his first year on the Commerce Committee, which he called “a great learning experience,” and the following six years on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

On the Appropriations Committee, Acinapura said he was especially concerned about how to conserve money and not raise taxes. He tried to play a “prudent observer’s role,” and his goal was “to do what’s best for the state and to do no harm to Brandon,” his district. A couple line items he was proud to work for were the Route 7 upgrade plus bridges in the Brandon area and “mosquito money,” funding for a mosquito abatement program in the lakes region.

Acinapura said the most important lesson as a House member that he would pass on to his successor is, “Seek cooperation by working with your peers. Of course, some people you can work more easily with others. … But over the years, you can establish very strong ties. Therefore I emphasize, to the best of your ability, get things done behind the scenes. If you truly have questions on legislation, go to the people who have sponsored the legislation and find out what it’s about. Don’t waste everybody else’s time on the floor by raising questions that could easily have been answered behind the scenes.”

He also emphasized the importance of taking care of constituents, saying he helped over 200 families per year, and said it’s important to mentor other legislators when they enter the House.

Acinapura is endorsing Seth Hopkins as his successor. As of Saturday, Acinapura said, Hopkins had not yet publicly announced his candidacy, “But he reads Vermont Digger, so when he reads this, he’s going to be very happy.”

Ken Atkins, D-Winooski

Atkins was thanked by his colleagues in a recent House resolution for providing peanut M&Ms to legislators during the customary break before a roll-call vote. The tradition will outlive his time in the House; he passed the M&M jar and the commitment to keep it supplied to Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington. A computer geek, the 14-year House veteran keeps careful track of numbers and other data. He reported that he had been present for 1,185 roll-call votes and dispensed nearly 745 pounds of M&Ms during his time in the House.

Atkins is passionate about open government and making legislative intent clear, and he points to recordings of legislative committee meetings as important to both. In an interview last year about technology use in the Legislature, he complained about some legislative committees that did not record their proceedings, and he said he would “name names” if they didn’t start recording. Since then, he has ceded leadership of the legislative committee on technology to other members, and he said he’s leaving the House without actually naming names — though some Senate committees still don’t record their meetings.

More time with his grandkids is a post-legislative goal for Atkins. He said he had missed every softball game of his oldest granddaughter this year, and he wanted to start going to them. With 34 years in teaching behind him, he hopes to get back into the classroom somewhere, perhaps at Community College of Vermont (“if they will have me”) or the High School of Vermont, which holds classes in the state’s correctional facilities.

Accomplishments he points to with pride include getting Vermont to install rumble strips on highway shoulders, a road construction detail whose importance he woke up to on a trip to Connecticut, where they shook him out of a slumber at the wheel before he crashed.

He also says that work his committee (Government Operations) did on tweaking the retirement funds for teachers and state workers saved hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years and made them solvent.

Howard Crawford, R-Burke

Crawford thought he had left the Legislature after 12 years in 2002, but he was appointed to an open seat when Cola Hudson died in 2008 and has served since. He brought his experience as dean of students at St. Johnsbury Academy to the Education Committee, where he has served both as chair and (in this session) vice chair.

An advocate of school choice, Crawford is pleased that choice has expanded dramatically since he began in the House in 1991. He was glad to pass Act 150, which required every high school in the state to partner with at least one other high school in allowing students to transfer from one to the other.

Crawford is also pleased with the budget work done on House Appropriations, especially the last four years. He served on the committee 2009-2010. While he acknowledged that the budget had grown, he said, “First of all, we produced a budget that addressed our problems … In this year’s budget, when you take out the one-time Irene stuff, you’re under 2 percent growth.”

Asked about advice to his successor and other legislators, Crawford reminisced about the greater amount of social interchange between everyone in the Legislature when he started in the early 1990s. That’s diminished, he said, especially across party lines. “There’s nobody particularly at fault about this; it just happened.” He thinks getting back to more meals together “would help keep discourse civil.”

He also advised his replacement to “be open to both sides,” balancing representing your constituents with listening to the views of your colleagues.

Sarah Edwards, P/D, Brattleboro

“I never dreamed I’d do it,” said Edwards of serving in the Legislature, “especially not five terms.” The data-driven representative cited statistics that most women who run do so not on their own initiative, but because they were asked.

Edwards has been running a conservation project on a small island off Belize for the last four years, and she’ll be heading there to continue the work preserving coral reefs. She draws parallels between the approach there with what has happened in Vermont in recent years, making sure businesses are viable while putting a high value on the land and water and the people involved: “commerce, conservation, and community” is the catch-phrase she uses.

Edwards served on the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which she characterized as having been dominated by energy work. “Vermonters want to get off fossil fuel,” she said. She was pleased with much of the energy legislation that came out of the committee: encouraging distributed generation of electricity (with smaller and more generating facilities), requiring net metering (so utilities must buy electricity from customers who install solar panels or other renewable generation), appliance efficiency standards, and others.

Outside of energy, Edwards was pleased to pass sweatshop legislation, so the state procures its uniforms and shoes from sources that don’t run sweatshops.

One disappointment is that the Legislature never passed paid sick leave. “It’s an issue that affects many hourly workers, many working mothers. It’s a public health issue. I hope someone else takes up that sword,” she said.

Gary Gilbert, D-Fairfax

Duncan Kilmartin, center, Gary Gilbert, left

Gilbert portrays himself as a reluctant, almost accidental solon. While in teaching, coaching and adminstration at Bellows Free Academy, he had been asked to run, but he did not want to balance the academy job with the Legislature. When he reached a point where he was ready to retire, he didn’t expect to win, running a two-seat district against multi-term incumbents. “I saw myself as a sacrificial lamb.” He ended up winning and serving three terms.

Gilbert credits his experience in school administration, on his town’s zoning board, and as chair of the planning commission, plus his years of teaching courses in government, with preparing him to work with his fellow legislators across the ideological spectrum. One way he did that was to look at how a bill’s effects would play out in practice.

This session’s bill that gives the governor the power to appoint the secretary of education was an example he’s proud of. While many people were apprehensive of giving the governor that power, he said, in practice, the governor already has a lot of control over the Education Department: he submits their budget to the Legislature, and his Agency of Administration controls the department’s staffing. In addition, the Board of Education has little time in its monthly meetings to do the policy work that is needed.

Gilbert said he wrote about how the parts of the new organization of the Education Department would work, and he thinks those details, plus allowing time for school boards and others who were apprehensive to digest the changes, led to broad support for the bill in the end.

Gilbert is also proud of killing some bills that he thought would be destructive. An example was an attempt under then-Gov. Jim Douglas, in which Gilbert said school districts were asked to save money, but only under the line item “support services.” Gilbert said the requirement would have taken away districts’ flexibility and made it more difficult to find people to serve on school boards, if the latitude of what they can control was crimped.

Adam Howard, R-Cambridge

I did not manage to talk to Howard in the House or later, before press time. A number of people mentioned him as someone not returning. Howard served on the Transportation Committee. In Cambridge, he serves as chair of the Ancient Roads Committee, and vice chair of the Development Review Board. In the brief life sketch that legislators submit to official biography book, Howard notes that he lives in a solar- and wind-powered home.

Dick Howrigan, D-Fairfield

“Eighteen years and finished,” is how Howrigan confirmed that he is leaving the House. “I have grandsons who I need to lead astray; they’re too perfect.”

Rep. Bob Krebs, left, D-S. Hero, and Rep. Richard Howrigan, D-Fairfield, listen to debate on the universal health care bill

He is chair of the Fairfield Olde Cemetery Association and talked about doing more work on those cemetery.

One of Vermont’s defeats on the national stage is also one of Howrigan’s proudest accomplishments: the campaign finance reform bill that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as imposing too strict limits on contributions to campaigns. Howrigan also cited Vermont’s response this year, a resolution to Congress opposing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn it. “We’ll see how the people take it.”

A teetotaler, Howrigan is pleased at the work he did to expand wine tastings in the state, including at farmers’ markets. “There are quite a few vineyards that have developed in Vermont,” he said, and he was glad to see their wines available at more tastings.

The working lands economic development bill that just passed the Legislature was another bill Howrigan said he took pride in, after initially being skeptical of it. He was especially enthusiastic about how it brought forestry interests together with agricultural interests.

“Be patient” is one of the lessons Howrigan learned in the House. Another was, “The more you can do locally, the better.”

Howrigan said he and others are hunting for someone to run for the seat he is vacating. “I don’t think they believed I was getting out.”

Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica

Olsen is leaving after three years in the Legislature, having been appointed by then-Gov. Jim Douglas to succeed Rick Hube, who died in office. Olsen is returning to his full-time job with Oracle Software. He said he is leaving because he has found it “almost impossible” to maintain a career outside the Legislature while being active in the House. “There is no easy solution. The number one issue is the unpredictability of the legislative session. You cannot plan around a definitive length of service.” The low pay of legislators is also a disincentive to people of working age, he said.

Rep. Oliver Olsen, photo by Josh Larkin.

Rep. Oliver Olsen, photo by Josh Larkin.

Olsen said he learned so many lessons, he was hesitant to name one or a few. I urged him on by pointing out that the lessons he omitted would not have hurt feelings, and he responded by saying that the number one lesson was, “The people who come here to serve — everybody comes with the best intentions and interests of Vermont at heart. They have different ideas about how to get there.”

He said he was proud to be part of the minority party, and that it is important to have a functioning minority. “What comes out is better than without an active minority.”

At the end of his three years, Olsen said, “I have achieved nearly everything I set out to.” He ensured that the redistricting process left his district intact, he said. A bridge that replaced one in his district that washed away during Irene is now named after his predecessor, Rick Hube. He drew attention to a $27 million transfer from the education fund to the general fund and its effects in driving up property taxes around the state.

Olsen also cited his role in hiking the generating tax on Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, to replace the payments the owners were making to the Clean Energy Development Fund under agreements that expired when the plant was scheduled to close in March. Finally, he said he was pleased to help change a tax code provision that double-counts income from interests and dividends when calculating whether a person’s property tax payments would be according to full property value or income. “It was having a horrendous impact on older Vermonters,” he said. This year, a bill eliminated the double counting for people over 65.

Norm McAllister, R-Highgate

McAllister is leaving the House after eight years, but he hopes to be back in the Legislature in January representing Franklin County as a senator, in the seat Randy Brock is vacating.

McAllister served on the Health and Human Services Committee his first four years, an assignment he said he wasn’t sure he wanted. “I thought I’d been sent to purgatory. As a farmer, I wasn’t sure it was a fit for me.”

But one of his proudest accomplishments comes from that committee, rewriting the state’s child custody laws. Before the rewrite, he said, it seemed like it was predetermined that the state would take the children away from young mothers in trouble. On top of that, he said, “it seemed like there were two strikes against kin before it even started. So if a grandparent or a sibling wanted to take the child, [the state was] actually trying to block that sort of thing.” McAllister thought this put the state in violation of federal law, so he reported the possible violation to someone in Washington — he doesn’t now remember who. The following summer, a federal audit of Vermont’s child custody system gave the state a failing grade, and the next session, the Legislature rewrote the rules.

“It was a huge undertaking, a tripartisan effort. I think we did some good.”

His final four years in the House were on the Agriculture Committee, and he is excited about the working lands bill passed this year.

McAllister is endorsing Steve Beyor of Highgate as his successor; he said Beyor had not officially announced yet.

Bert Munger, D-South Burlington

Munger is leaving the House after a single two-year term. He said he ran for office only when the 2010 candidate filing deadline approach and Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, called him and said, “If you don’t run, there won’t be a Democrat running in your district.” He is returning to his private psychotherapy and drug and alcohol abuse practice. When asked about how it worked to combine the practice with legislative service, he said “Not so well.” Some of his patients were “significantly angry” at him for shutting down the practice during the session, he said.

Asked about accomplishments he was proud of, Munger said, “Sometimes I think your best work ends up on the cutting room floor. I don’t think there’s anything that got done that wouldn’t have gotten done if I wasn’t there.” But then he thought of one: a bill he introduced at the request of a constituent who had worked against Munger’s election.

The bill would have banned the use of formaldehyde, a potent toxin and human carcinogen, in footbaths used to control a cattle hoof disease. Munger said that the liquid is mixed with manure and spread on fields, and neighbors of farmers in Franklin County had complained of health problems after it was spread. The ban did not pass, but the Legislature commissioned a study. “It’s not my district, but I was the only representative to introduce something.”

Munger was also pleased that the Legislature fixed a loophole on regulation of development in flood hazard areas. “If we didn’t address it,” he said, “potentially, people couldn’t get flood insurance in Vermont.”

Rachel Weston, D-Burlington

As previously noted in press releases on VTDigger.org, Weston left the House in January, after serving five years, to work for the National Democratic Institute on promoting women’s political participation in Jordan. Jill Krowinski was appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in February to serve the rest of Weston’s term.

Carl Etnier

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