Senate president pro tem priorities: Budget and mental health deficits

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Quechee, sits for an interview at his Statehouse office on Tuesday. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell’s No. 1 priority this legislative session is addressing the state’s budget shortfall of $50 million to $70 million in fiscal year 2014.

Campbell says the fiscal cliff negotiations in Congress give the state an opportunity to revisit government’s role in delivering social services across all agencies and departments. He doesn’t think the time is right for raising state revenues.

“Belt tightening is something that’s very difficult to do, but if you still have room to pull it in another notch, that’s the first thing we should be doing, rather than seeking additional revenues,” said Campbell in an interview.

Campbell didn’t name any specific programs or services he’d cut, but said the administration and the Agency of Human Services need to take a close look at current services and shave off inefficiencies and eliminate redundant or dysfunctional programs.

He supports Gov. Peter Shumlin’s no-new-broad-based-taxes pledge. Although Campbell wants to protect vulnerable Vermonters, especially the elderly, children, and the disabled, he says it’s impossible for Vermont to make up the difference for expected federal budget cuts, which could hit local preschool and afterschool programs, and state heating fuel assistance and workforce training programs, among other services.

In a joint memo from early October, the Joint Fiscal Office and the state’s Department of Finance and Mangement estimate that imminent reductions in federal funding could total $15 million annually, with about half associated with the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program .

The memo says that whatever the outcome of federal budget talks in January, “all areas of federal funding will be under continued pressure for constriction in both the near and long term.” The memo highlights 13 different funding pots which will be affected if automatic spending cuts take effect.

Campbell’s other key priority is pushing for a community-based model of mental health care, partly in response to what he views as the state’s longtime failure to prioritize mental health issues.

The rebuilding of the Vermont State Hospital destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene 16 months ago is key to the community care transition, Campbell said. He’d ask the incoming Institutions Committee chair, who oversees the capital construction bill, to make rebuilding the hospital the state’s top infrastructure priority.

Although FEMA’s refusal to help fund the reconstruction is a serious problem, said Campbell, he’s confident that the state will secure funding, and he is willing to put other capital projects on hold indefinitely, to more quickly break ground on the state hospital, hopefully sometime in 2013.

As for community-based care, Campbell said: “Access to quality mental health care is really the issue here. My personal opinion is that the best setting for that is within the community itself, rather than in an institutional model. That’s why I supported the smaller bed facility.”

Social issues will be a factor this session. Death with dignity, marijuana decriminalization, gun control, child care worker unionization, and a wind energy moratorium are all topics Campbell is certain will come up in committees.

Many of these topics are carried over from legislative battles in the last session. A number of state senators complained that these subjects weren’t given sufficient airing on the Senate floor.

Campbell is ambivalent about new gun control legislation in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. “I don’t think private individuals should have assault rifles, but that’s so broad,” Campbell said. “And that may not address the issue we’re trying to solve.”

“I don’t know how well that will be received, because of the fact that the NRA in Vermont is very powerful,” he said. Campbell wouldn’t commit to any position on an automatic weapons ban before specific legislation is drafted. He is concerned about constitutional conflicts created by state regulation of weapons.

Campbell presided over arguably dysfunctional Senate proceedings in the last biennium that put his leadership position at risk. As a result, Senate Finance Chair Ann Cummings, D-Montpelier, launched a failed bid for the President Pro Tem slot earlier this year. Campbell promised this year’s proceedings will be smoother, with more careful committee assignments, timely passage of bills to the floor and strict punctuality rules.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, chair of Health and Welfare, is likely to replace retiring Sen. Bill Carris, D-Rutland, as his second-in-command. When Campbell was majority leader, Ayer worked as his deputy.

Campbell said he’d miss veteran Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, an “almost iconic” Statehouse character with a famous talent for drafting legislation. “Vince is one of those guys, where you sometimes either love him or hate him,” said Campbell. “I consider Vince a friend, and I know I’m going to miss his daily counsel.”

Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • Margaret Newton,

    On the issue of gun control following the tragedy in Newtown, CT, John Campbell in this interview (Digger report Dec. 20, 2012) raises a frightening reality. Campbell states, “The NRA in Vermont is very powerful.” This suggests to me that the NRA has influential tentacles in all state legislature as well as in Congress. I was previously unaware of this. Are we Vermonters going to continue to tolerate the NRA mentality and sit back and do nothing when the next horrible, preventable murder occurs on our streets and public places, and even in private gun-owning households where accidental and intended shootings occur needlessly? Vermont is not immune. How many people including children were accidentally shot last year by a family member who was playing with a gun or cleaning it?

    This is one of America’s most disgraceful, horrible and immoral PUBLIC HEALTH realities. “Only in America,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York.

    As a retired physician, I am personally committed to a system of universal health care; but the health care system and its providers is helpless: it/they can only help by treating gun-induced injuries (at huge financial and personal cost) and mourn the slaughter. PREVENTION by societal action and a shift in our cultural values is the only solution. Strong legislative action and aggressive enforcement is one essential element.

    What leadership and prompt forceful action will we hear from Governor Peter Shumlin, Dr. Harry Chen, Head of the VT Public Health Division, and other government officials including the VT legislators? Will they move beyond the few weeks of mourning after the Newtown tragedy, and their speeches before returning to business as usual?
    We need them to adopt Mayer Bloomberg’s immediate proactive stance and determination.

    Margaret Newton, MD,
    POBox 2233
    West Brattleboro, VT

  • Scott Garren

    Gun control is not just about assault weapons. The legal age for buying and carrying concealed weapons — handguns– in Vermont is 16. The penalty for selling handguns to children under 16 is $10-50. The legal age for buying or selling alcoholic beverages is 21 and the penalty goes to $10,000 and 5 years in prison if serious injury results. Surely it is time for a comprehensive review of our gun laws.

    • Jonathan Willson

      To clarify a little; the legal age for buying a handgun from any licensed dealer is 21 years of age due to federal law I believe. Since federal trumps state, the indictment of our VT law on this is fairly useless. Gun stores won’t even take a handgun out of the case unless you are 21 with valid I.D.

  • Timothy MacLam

    “’Belt tightening is something that’s very difficult to do, but if you still have room to pull it in another notch, that’s the first thing we should be doing, rather than seeking additional revenues,’” said Campbell in an interview.”

    Sen. Campbell should take notice that those of us who still have belts have no more notches. Who does the senator purport to represent? He seems a long way from Windsor County and the Town of Hartford (where we both live).

  • Jim Barrett

    Typical left wing BS….blame everyone else for the problems this country has and especially the NRA! The fact that some people are mentally ill and need help but the easy way out is to condemn a gun, what next grenades, bombs, knives and the list is never ending.

    On the issue of taxes, the governor and your elected officials in Montpelier raised the cost of you living here every year since Shumlin has been in and will do so again this year. Broad based taxes won’t be touched but every fee etc. will be on their list. Enjoy the ones who Vermonters voted for and don’t complain if you voted for this bunch.

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