And so it begins. Vermont’s General Assembly opened for business this week. Wednesday was mostly filled with ceremonial activity and it was great to have Laurel, Tucker, Mack, and my parents with me for today’s swearing in.
Prior to adjourning Wednesday morning, Speaker Shap Smith announced his appointments to each of the fifteen House committees. Since the vast majority of a legislator’s time is spent on committee work, committee assignments mean a great deal. Our district fared very well in that Jim maintained his seat on Ways & Means and I got a seat on the Health Care Committee. In a typical year, there wouldn’t be too much shuffling of committee members or chairmanships, but this isn’t an ordinary year. The Speaker appointed some new committee chairs and re-assigned some members to better align the capabilities of legislators with the issues before us. To Jim’s credit, the Speaker re-appointed him to Ways & Means, the tax-writing committee that has huge plate of issues related to the looming budget deficit, education tax policy, and health care financing.
For several reasons I was thrilled to be appointed to the Health Care Committee. First, I was honored to take up Kathy Hoyt’s seat on Health Care. Kathy has previously briefed me on the work of the committee and some of the personalities around the table. I’ve already been alerted as to the big shoes I have to fill with Kathy’s retirement. Second, freshman legislators don’t usually get one of their top committee choices and Health Care was one of mine. Third, in spite of the governor pulling back from the push for a universal health care system in Vermont with his pre-Christmas announcement, I continue to believe that health care issues are the most important economic issue before our state. Health care is 20% of our state’s economy and growing fast. Too fast. Finally, the Health Care Committee has a wonderful chairman. Bill Lippert from Hinesburg had chaired the Judiciary Committee for a decade until the Speaker pulled him over to lead Health Care. He did a masterful job leading the legislature through some of the most contentious issues in recent memory (civil unions, marriage equality, and issues related to marijuana and end-of-life care) and he’ll be a steady hand leading a committee composed of three Republicans, six Democrats, and two Progressive/Independents.
Wednesday afternoon was taken up with the process of “seating” the House of Representatives. Most of the 115 returning representatives retain their old seats in the House chamber, though a few move around (Rep. Jewett of Ripton, the former Majority Leader, snapped up seat #97 that Margaret Cheney and Kathy Hoyt had long held). For new legislators, names were drawn by lot and the individual members choose seats as their names are called. In spite of my low number in the seat lottery, an aisle seat, #93, was still available when I entered the chamber. #93 is in a distinguished neighborhood of committee chairs just down the aisle from Margaret/Kathy’s old seat. A great place to start.
Thursday had a very different feel from Wednesday’s ceremonial activities. While the first days of the legislative session sometimes weight ceremony over substance, with the gubernatorial election unresolved, it did not feel that way as this session got underway. We needed to elect a governor. I had heard from dozens of constituents asking me to vote for either Scott Milne or Peter Shumlin (no calls for Dan Felliciano!). I responded to folks who called or emailed with a reply very similar to the following, which I posted on the list serves in Sharon, Strafford, Thetford, and Norwich:
Today, in my first vote in the Statehouse, I cast my ballot for Peter Shumlin to serve another term as governor. As a new legislator, I based this vote on two criteria: historical precedent and the will of my district as evidenced by the November popular vote.
Historical precedent: The Joint Assembly of the legislature (30 senators and 150 representatives) is required by Vermont’s Constitution to elect the governor when no candidate receives a majority of the votes in the popular election. Prior to today, this has happened 22 times, including twice in the last 12 years (2003 and 2011). And yet, you would have to go back 162 years to find the last time that the legislature used their ballot to override the highest vote recipient in the gubernatorial election.
The will of district: Governor Shumlin was the overwhelming choice of the voters in our four-town district (Sharon, Norwich, Strafford, Thetford). He outpolled Scott Milne 2,403 to 814. Of Governor Shumlin’s statewide 2,434 vote margin over Scott Milne, two-thirds was achieved in our district.
Honoring the tradition of choosing the highest vote getter statewide, and deferring to the overwhelming choice of the voters in our four towns, today I cast my ballot for Peter Shumlin.
Thank you for your interest and please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns,
When the question of the gubernatorial vote was called there was no discussion or debate. A designated committee of Representatives and Senators handed out pre-printed ballots to each legislator, collected each individual ballot once it had been marked, and counted the ballots at a table in full view of the Joint Assembly. Lieutenant Governor Scott, the presiding officer of the Joint Assembly, was then handed a piece of paper, gaveled the room to order, and read the following results: Dan Felliciano, zero votes; Scott Milne, 69 votes; Peter E. Shumlin, 110 votes. After declaring Governor Shumlin governor for the next two years, the assembly quietly adjourned.
Thursday afternoon was not a quiet assembly as the governor delivered his inaugural address. After he was sworn in by Vermont’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber, Governor Shumlin delivered a speech on “Part One” of his priorities for the next year: cleaning up Lake Champlain and increasing investment in renewable energy. The governor gave a nice shout-out to Norwich-based Solaflect as he highlighted innovative renewable energy companies in Vermont who are creating jobs and renewable energy.
The inaugural assembly was interrupted on various occasions by protestors angry at the governor’s pull-back from the pursuit of a universal care system in Vermont. While some legislators were sympathetic (even nostalgic) to the protestors’ singing, chanting, and sign-waving, that tolerance began to evaporate as Rev. Robert Potter of Peacham gave his benediction. Rev. Potter was good-natured and empathetic in acknowledging the protesters, who proceeded to drown out much of his conciliatory and inspirational remarks. By that point, the protestors had lost the room and totally missed the mark in their attempt to bring positive attention to the need for a universal care system.