Rough Sledding Ahead
This year’s legislative session will not be for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.
Within a week of landing in Montpelier, top economists will hand legislators more gloomy news: the likely need to cut an additional $35 to $50 million from this year’s budget. The FY 2010 budget may require surgery to the tune of $150 million.
In a recent meeting with the Burlington Free Press editorial board, Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville promised, “We will gore everyone’s ox, including the governor’s ox and the legislature’s ox.” Freeps Executive Editor Mike Townsend noted the quote on his “Twitterings” blog.
Lunderville also told the Freeps he’s been having trouble sleeping — and no wonder, with those bloody bovine images kicking around in his head.
More likely, he’s being haunted by spreadsheets bleeding red ink and pink slips. Since August, when he took over the $120,000 job from Mike Smith, Lunderville has had to oversee more than $100 million in savings from the current fiscal plan. He’s also been in charge of cutting 250 vacant positions from the budget — permanently. That plan is due out at month’s end.
His scissor hand has been guided by the legislative Joint Fiscal Committee, composed of key lawmakers from the money committees in the House and Senate. Still, budget deficits have a way of scaring the shit out of people. And nobody’s more frightened than the people on the receiving end.
In December, Lunderville pushed to have another $37 million axed from the budget. After a tussle, Lunderville et al. eliminated $20 million from the budget, and agreed to let the incoming legislature deal with the remaining cuts so there could be a broader public discussion about them. Imagine that, public discussion on a public budget. What’ll they think of next?
Advocates for the vulnerable successfully urged lawmakers to wait until January before making any further budget cuts. They fear more reductions in funding could drastically affect services to the poor, elderly and disabled.
Barbara Postman of Kids are Priority One led the letter-writing campaign. Roughly three dozen organizations representing tens of thousands of Vermonters signed on to the campaign letter, she said.
“No one is arguing for no cuts at all,” she pointed out. “We all know it’s a tough budget, but we do believe that there needs to be a broad discussion and we should have all options on the table.”
One of those options is turning to Washington for help. In mid-December, Gov. Jim Douglas joined fellow guvs in D.C. for a hat-holding ceremony before key members of Congress.
Douglas told the House Appropriations Committee that governors were “working hard to address this downturn and are currently looking at all options to reduce expenditures. These reductions, however, will undoubtedly impact state services,” he continued, “including those services supporting Vermont’s most vulnerable citizens.”
How could the federal government best help the states? With a boost in transportation infrastructure and Medicaid funding, said Douglas, who is the vice chair of the National Governors Association.
Vermont’s congressional delegation is pushing for legislation that would waive the state and local matches for all federally funded highway, transit and rail projects through September 30, 2009. State officials say such a move could mean an additional $15 million flowing into the state.
Douglas still maintains that Vermont needs to dig out of the recession without raising taxes. It can be done, he believes, through reductions in state spending, programs and positions.
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, a Windham County Democrat, is in league with the governor on this one: He’s lobbying to cut state spending and believes the state should look to the feds to make up the difference in key areas such as transportation and health care.
Though painful decisions are ahead, Shumlin said, “I have confidence that as Vermonters, we will use our ingenuity, pragmatism and thoughtfulness to overcome these challenges.”
Shumlin’s counterpart in the House — incoming House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) — said lawmakers must look at both short- and long-term solutions to the budget conundrum.
“Clearly, the budget and the economy are going to be front and center as we return in January,” said Smith. While the money committees focus on the budget, he said other key committees will be “rethinking how we deliver services and rethinking what services we deliver.”
Smith is one of only a few lawmakers who say the state should not rule out raising taxes as a way to get out of the budget mess. As we noted in last week’s “Fair Game,” Republican Gov. Richard Snelling came to the same conclusion during the recessions of 1983 and 1991. And history suggests he got us out of those.
But, hey, who’s keeping track?
“Other Issues” — “The governor has three essential priorities for this year: the economy, community safety and the budget,” said spokesman Steve Wark. “His strong belief is that these extraordinarily difficult times require the specific focus of elected leaders to keep Vermonters safe, both economically and from a public-safety perspective. Other issues, while important, need to be put in perspective.”
What “other issues,” exactly? Could he be referring to same-sex marriage?
Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor) said he hopes to get a bill through his chamber by the Town Meeting Day break. He admits it will take some effort to convince colleagues that same-sex marriage merits consideration during dire times. He also acknowledges that he received numerous hostile phone calls after announcing he would introduce legislation that would allow gay couples to make it official.
Campbell said a special legislative commission has done most of the legal legwork. It’s heard from the Vermont citizens, too, and created a body of evidence that lawmakers can review without having to hold lengthy and potentially emotional public hearings.
“I think what is extremely important for people to know,” said Campbell, “is that this would not force religious organizations to perform the ceremonies.”
A same-sex marriage proponent in the House, Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington), said the bill will come up — that’s not in question.
“The question is how will we respond,” said Larson. “I would hope it doesn’t become similar to the impeachment debate, where not doing it took more time than doing it, and opponents and supporters all were pissed off with us.”
Equally emotional, and politically toxic, is the issue of Vermont Yankee and whether lawmakers should give it a second life. Without a legislative decision to extend its operating license, the Entergy-owned nuke plant will have to shut down in 2012.
It’s not clear if Vermont Yankee will come up for a vote this session. Without a “yea” vote from lawmakers, state law prohibits the Public Service Board from offering what is known as a certificate of public good. The quasi-judicial PSB could be ready to rule by fall.
Rep. Tony Klein (D-Montpelier) is likely to continue as chairman of the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee. Though not a fan of Vermont Yankee or nuclear power, Klein said he will ensure his colleagues make an informed decision.
“I am not opposed to having a vote this session,” said Klein. “What I am opposed to is having a vote by a legislative body without any information before them. My goal is to have an open and clear and full process — no shenanigans.”
The two processes — the legislature’s and the PSB’s — are intertwined. Some of the information lawmakers need will be filed as testimony with the PSB as part of the relicensing procedure. A key consultant’s review of the plant’s reliability will be made public on December 22, and a special legislative oversight panel will issue its own evaluation sometime mid-session.
The PSB hopes that by July it will have all the necessary data on Yankee. Lawmakers are unlikely to remain in Montpelier past May.
As for Entergy, it switched lobbyists in October from long-term pro Gerry Morris to a bigger firm — MacLean, Meehan, and Rice. Christopher Rice, who ran Doug Racine’s 1996 lite-gov campaign, will head up the effort to persuade lawmakers that keeping VY running for another 20 years is good for the state. No small task.
When we caught up with Rice in mid-December, he was still putting together a session game plan for his new client. Word of advice: The longer you wait for a vote, the more likely another piece of Vermont Yankee will fall off. Seriously. The plant’s deteriorating condition is its own worst enemy.
Antinuke activists are trying to get a Yankee-closing resolution on ballots all across the state in time for Town Meeting Day. Leading that effort is Dan DeWalt, the Newfane selectman who spearheaded the town-meeting impeachment movement.
On the theme of “relicensing” a tired idea, Team Douglas has another well-worn agenda item: As part of an “economic stimulus” package, it’s trotting out some “permit reform” proposals the Leg has rejected for six years. Among the changes being considered is one that would make the Act 250 appeals process more formal, possibly curbing citizen input.
A special task force of three political appointees — Peter Young, chairman of the Natural Resources Board, Kevin Dorn, commerce secretary, and Laura Pelosi, environmental commissioner — will release its recs in January. To date the panel has largely taken its input from lawyers and developers.
Brian Shupe, sustainable communities director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said Douglas hasn’t had a coherent economic-development strategy during his tenure.
“He’s done very little until the economy is on the verge of collapse, only to trot out his reliable scapegoat: gutting regulations that protect our environmental quality,” said Shupe. “Act 250 has been proven to insulate Vermont from the booms and busts that affect the rest of the country. It helps Vermont weather economic storms like the one we face now.”
Shelter helps, too. Other advocates are worried about the merging of two departments — economic development and housing — at a time when people are losing their homes. Douglas said the move could save as much as $100,000.
“With the economy in the tank, people losing their homes and shelters overflowing, advocates have been very concerned that the Douglas administration wants to downsize economic development and housing,” said Erhard Mahnke, of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
Tapped to be the deputy commish in charge of housing is Tayt Brooks, the outgoing GOP executive director and former lobbyist for the Vermont Homebuilders Association. Brooks is a nice enough guy, but he’s got no experience working in affordable housing. In fact, some homebuilders openly despise the nonprofit housing folks.
“To me, this is like the fox guarding the hen house,” added Mahnke.
Between the hens, foxes and oxen, this year’s legislature may sound, and smell, more like a farmyard.