Winooski House Democrat George Cross plans to continue his longstanding fight over stationing F-35 fighter jets in Burlington right onto the House floor on Wednesday, as the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee considers a military “omnibus” bill.
Cross is proposing three amendments to the bill, though all three are expected to fail. The first amendment asks for the state to be removed from the first round of basing decisions by the Air Force, mirroring a resolution Cross introduced earlier in the session.
The point of that amendment, Cross told the House Democratic caucus on Tuesday, is to allow for a pause, where Vermonters can carefully consider the benefits and drawbacks of bringing F-35s here, before endorsing any final decision.
“Obviously there’s going to be additional decisions regarding where they’re going to go,” said Cross, who noted the first batch of 250 jets is only a handful among thousands of jets scheduled for manufacture. “All it says is: Let’s wait until the next round. Let’s wait until we have more information about what this plane is, and what it is not.”
Cross’ second amendment calls for a study by the state’s Joint Fiscal Office, in collaboration with other state agencies, on the “adverse impacts” of basing F-35s here. Cross said the JFO told him that the study could be done for a very minimal expense, because a wealth of public information on the issue already exists.
Cross told VTDigger after the caucus that the point of the study, theoretically due in January 2014, is not necessarily to influence the actual decision about where to host the F-35s. That decision is in the hands of the Air Force, and state lawmakers have no formal say.
“The importance of it is not so much that it’s going to impact their decision, as it is that we’ll have some kind of information that we have collected here in Vermont, to go forward with,” said Cross.
In a fourth amendment not directly related to F-35s, Cross wants to undo the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee decision to mandate that candidates for adjutant general, the state’s top military post, have military experience.
In February, James Leas, a civilian, ran for the post, using his candidacy as a platform to criticize the F-35 plan, and the military itself, at length. Cross declined to say whether he voted for Leas, who won only four votes, compared with victor Brig. Gen. Steve Cray’s 135 votes.
“I would hope that they’re not making changes to the process based on Jimmy Leas’ candidacy, because I think that’d be unusual. He was trying to make a point,” said Cross. “F-35 opponents were not able to get an audience in any way, shape, or manner. This provided a way to get an audience.”
The House General committee voted 7-0-1 against Cross’ first two amendments, while Cross hasn’t yet officially tabled the fourth amendment. The committee will almost certainly oppose that too, since it chose to require some military credentials for adjutant general candidates.
Committee Chair Helen Head told the House Democratic caucus: “The committee feels strongly that the decision about the F-35 basing will be made at the federal level, and is not the role of the General Assembly.”
On Sunday, the Boston Globe also published a story which alleged that the Air Force chose South Burlington as an F-35 base as a political favor to senior Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.
In a statement from Monday, Leahy denied the claims, saying: “The Air Force selected the Vermont Guard as its preferred choice for the F-35s on the merits, based on the Vermont Air Guard’s unsurpassed record, its top-flight personnel and facilities, and its strategic location. Vague, anonymous, uninformed and rehashed conspiracy theories cannot change those facts.”
Leahy’s office also released a detailed chronology of events, alongside a host of relevant documents, which can be found verbatim below.
CHRONOLOGY OF ACTIONS AND CORRESPONDENCE ON PROPOSED F-35 BASING IN VERMONT
Oct 2009: The Air Force selected the Vermont Guard in Burlington as one of 10 finalist locations for the F-35.
March 2010: South Burlington City Manager sends a letter to the Air Force requesting more information. At Tab 1.
May 2010: Senator Leahy sends a letter to the Air Force supporting the aims of the South Burlington letter. The letter also expresses Senator Leahy’s support for basing. At Tab 1A. Prior to this letter, Senator Leahy had had no communication with the Air Force about F-35 basing, according to our records.
July 2010: Burlington announced as the preferred candidate location for the F-35, Environmental Impact Study commences. See “Chronology” for details of the schedule of public hearings and other interactions.
November 2011: Senator Leahy pushes for the elevation of the Chief of the National Guard Bureau to the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the strong objections of the current Joint Chiefs, including the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Norton Schwartz. The Senate Armed Services Committee convenes a hearing with the specific purpose of allowing the Joint Chiefs to speak out against Senator Leahy’s proposal, which is ultimately adopted despite the Pentagon’s (and the Air Force’s) strong opposition.
June 2012: The Vermont delegation sends a letter to the Air Force requesting a fair and transparent process. At Tab 2. Unrelated to the F-35, but an example of a separate disagreement between Senator Leahy and the Air Force in 2012: In response to a flawed budget proposal, and as a warning signal to the Air Force that he plans to substantially amend the Air Force budget, Senator Leahy sends a letter challenging the new Chief of Staff nominee, General Mark Welsh, on how he plans to work with the Guard to bolster the Total Air Force. At Tab 8.
July 2012: On the July 3, the Air Force sends a letter to then-Council Chair Greco refuting claims that the scoring process was flawed. At Tab 3. On July 11, the Vermont delegation sends a letter to the Air Force asking that noise mitigation efforts be made if the F-35 is based in Vermont. At Tab 4. On July 12, the Air Force responds to the first Vermont delegation letter. At Tab 2A. Unrelated to the F-35, but demonstrating the continuing disagreement between Senator Leahy and the Air Force: Senator Leahy sends a letter to Secretary Donley detailing his many criticisms of the Air Force budget. At Tab 9.
August 2012: On August 6, the Vermont delegation forwards a letter from South Burlington to the Air Force, asking that the Air Force follow up directly and as appropriate. At Tab 5. On August 17, the Air Force provides more detailed noise maps to South Burlington. At Tab 5C. On August 21, the Air Force responds to the Vermont delegation’s second letter. At Tab 4A. On August 24, the Air Force sends its preliminary response to the Vermont delegation’s third letter. At Tab 5A.
September 2012: On September 28, the Air Force responds to the Vermont delegation’s third letter. At Tab 5B.