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January 05, 2010

And They're Off!

DSC04757 Lawmakers convened today in Montpelier to kick off the second half of the 2009-2010 biennium, with top officials coming together and speaking in a tone of bipartisanship that was largely absent just seven months ago.

It was also clear that we're likely to see  Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie given greater billing during key policy announcements delivered by Gov. Jim Douglas.

Douglas, who announced in August he will not seek a fifth term this fall, is supporting Dubie to succeed him in office. Dubie has long been Douglas' "copilot" and has embarked on trade missions to Quebec and Asia on the governor's behalf, as well as serving as the chairman of his homeland security task force.

Meanwhile, five Democrats — including three sitting senators, one of whom is the leader of the senate – are vying to be the Democratic nominee. Should make for an interesting session, to say the least.

At a widely attended afternoon press conference with House Speaker Shap Smith and President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (who is one of those Dems running for governor), Dubie stood behind Douglas at the podium and was given first dibs on addressing the crowd after the governor. (Photo credit: Andy Bromage)

The purpose of the press conference was to announce the results of a months-long bipartisan effort by legislative leaders, an outside consultant called Public Strategies Group and the Douglas administration to restructure state government.

The Douglas administration informed legislative leaders only yesterday that it wanted Dubie to take part in the plan's unveiling, say legislative aides.

Dubie made the most of his time at the stump — praising the work of legislative leaders and state employees in their efforts not only to trim the cost of government but to improve how services are delivered to Vermonters.

"This effort has been about people, not process," said Dubie. “The reform initiative we’ve announced today is the product of collaboration. It will help us achieve savings by moving the focus away from systems and processes, and refocusing on the people we serve and on the results we get."

The plan aims to trim nearly $40 million from the FY 2011 budget through various efficiencies and allowing departments to become more innovative in how they deliver services. The plan may also reduce the total property tax burden by about $12 million the first year, according to legislative leaders. In FY 2012, those savings could expand to $72 million and $26 million, respectively.

The first crack at turning the proposal into legislation belongs to the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille), who is, yes, also running for governor.

When asked after the briefing if this show of bipartisanship would translate to other aspects of what is expected to a difficult session, Shumlin said lawmakers and the administration want to avoid the tension of 2009.

Last year, the legislature overrode two gubernatorial vetoes: one on same-sex marriage and one on the budget. Never before had a Vermont governor been delivered two veto overrides in one session.

"No one wants to repeat either the veto or the veto override," said Shumlin. "Vermonters are best served when we work together. These are tough times, and we're going to do everything we can to work together. Sure, there'll be disagreements, but in the end we need to work together."

Well, they all sound like that in the first couple of days of the session. Give it a few weeks, once the politics surrounding the fall election begin to simmer a bit.

It's likely the politics will kick into a new gear on Thursday when Gov. Douglas delivers his state of the state address. It's expected he'll focus largely on themes he has emphasized since taking office: creating jobs, reforming the state's environmental permitting system, trimming school spending and cutting the size of government. Those ideas have not been met with much enthusiasm in recent years by legislative Democrats.

In all, the start of the second half of the biennium has little pomp and much more circumstance than the start of a brand new one. Today lawmakers took time to socialize and catch up with colleagues, but for the most part they got right down to committee work.

The House began its day around 10 a.m. with a somber tribute to Reps. Ira Trombley (D-Grand Isle) and Rick Hube (R-Londonderry). The two members died within days of each other in late December, both unexpectedly. Their replacements have yet to be named.

Speaker Smith said the chamber begins the new year with a great level of energy and excitement, but also a "great sense of loss."

"In spite of our differences, or perhaps because of them, we are like family," said Smith. "And, as a family, we go through the ups and downs of life, and this is part of the down."

Part of the up, though, was welcoming two new members to the chamber. Reps. Charles Shaw and Adam Howard, both Republicans, are replacing Reps. Peg Flory and Richard Westman. Flory has been appointed to the Senate, replacing Sen. Hull Maynard (R-Rutland), while Westman has taken the job of tax commissioner.

The Senate also got right down to business, swearing in a new member — Flory — and then breaking off into committees.

Stay tuned to Blurt this week, as staff writer Andy Bromage will also be posting news from the legislature, and I'll be back down in Montpelier on Thursday to report on the governor's state of the state address.

I'll provide some live Tweets during the speech. Follow me to take part in the conversation.

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