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Bray to chair Senate Natural Resources Committee

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Posted on January 22, 2015 |
By John Flowers



NEW HAVEN — Sen. Chris Bray had hoped Senate leadership would appoint him to the Natural Resources and Energy Committee this session. The sophomore senator is an avid outdoorsman and he believes the state’s long history of good environmental stewardship should be perpetuated.

So it’s safe to say that the New Haven Democrat was positively ecstatic when he learned a week ago that he had not only been named to his preferred committee, he would in fact serve as its chairman.

“I could have fallen out of my chair when they announced my name,” Bray said during an interview on Monday.

The chairmanship had been left vacant by the retirement of former Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Wilmington. Around 10 senators had expressed an interest in chairing the panel, which will be taking the lead on several hot-button issues this biennium.

“I know we have a lot of serious work to do,” Bray said. “I feel confident and ready to take on the work.”

Bray is one of three Addison County lawmakers who will chair a Legislative committee over the next two years. Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, will again chair the Senate Health Care Committee and continue as Senate majority whip. Ayer’s committee will be at the epicenter of ongoing health care reform efforts.

Meanwhile, Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, will chair the House Education Committee, a panel that will take a lead in the Legislature’s stated priority of reforming the manner in which Vermont’s public schools are funded.

Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted the bulk of his inaugural address to environmental issues such as the cleanup of Lake Champlain and ramping up development of renewable energy, so Bray’s Natural Resources and Energy Committee will be under close scrutiny this session. And Bray welcomes that scrutiny.

“That work (described by Shumlin) would have been the core of our work anyway, in terms of water and energy issues, but with the governor making it the focus of his inaugural, it’s really brought more attention and energy into those issues,” Bray said. “This is great. In order to make progress, you need people willing to pay attention, work on something, and make financial commitments to make things happen. Commitment without money is no commitment at all.”

Bray’s first priority as chairman will be to give committee members a solid foundation of knowledge on the state’s environmental policies and priorities. To that end, he has invited top officials from the Agency of Natural Resources, the Department of Public Services and the Agency of Agriculture, among others, to offer background and their respective insights on environmental issues in the Green Mountain State. Those state officials will also have a chance to lobby the committee for changes to environmental statutes and programs.

“It’s really important, in my experience, for committees to spend the time informing themselves about current law, policies and programs before they start working on anything new,” Bray said of the committee. “It’s essential background work.”

Once that background work is done, the committee will focus on the three priorities it has set for the session: Improving water quality, most notably in Lake Champlain; helping define the state’s energy policy; and assessing the success of — and possible changes to — the state’s solid waste law that is dramatically reducing the amount of trash that is finding its way into the waste stream.

Bray is pleased that Senate leaders have considered a committee assignment strategy that attempts to place senators on both money and policy committees. In this manner, senators assigned to policy committees such as health and welfare or education can grasp the financial implications of specific proposals by also sitting on the finance or appropriations committees, Bray noted.

“You can’t talk about the policy without the money, and vice versa,” Bray said. “I don’t think we can really talk meaningfully about governance reform and making education better and more affordable without having a great, ongoing dialogue between the Education Committee, and the Finance and Appropriations committees.”

Bray promised to work hard and to be impartial in his management of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

“I want to take a balanced approach,” he said. “I am not ideological. I’ve worked on contentious issues in the past and brought people to an agreement. We will run into some strongly divergent views, when it comes to things like water and  energy and solid waste. For me, the goal in my mind, is always very simple: Do the best you can for all of Vermont. That’s the star I steer by. I don’t get caught up into party politics. As my father said, ‘A good idea can come from anywhere.’”

Bray’s reputation for impartiality rang true with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who had a hand in committee assignments.

“Forming committees and choosing leadership is never easy,” Scott said through an email to the Independent. “It’s as much about finding the right mix of strengths and personalities as it is about a person’s expertise. In many ways, I find it’s similar to building a sports team; you look for individual talent and then capitalize on everyone’s strong suits, putting them together in a way that will get the best results. I find Sen. Bray to be fair, open-minded, and responsible, and I have confidence he will become a good chair.”

WHAT VERMONTERS SAY

In addition to hearing from environmental experts and lawmakers, Bray looks forward to listening to what Vermonters have to say about the issues that come before the committee. Those Vermonters include farmers whose manure management practices have come into focus in connection with runoff into Lake Champlain. Shumlin acknowledged during his inaugural that the majority of farmers comply with state manure management rules, but suggested that those who don’t be precluded from receiving tax benefits through the Current Use program. Bray said the state needs to be careful about singling out one group for lake pollution, be it farmers, vehicles, or municipal wastewater treatment plants. Bray expects around a half-dozen Legislative committees will get input into the Lake Champlain cleanup issue — in addition to citizens.

“No matter what 180 people we would elect to the Legislature, they will never have greater expertise or experience than the 626,000 people outside the Statehouse,” Bray said. “The quality of our work in the Legislature is, in my mind, clearly dependent on how well we engage people outside the building.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing Vermont’s latest Lake Champlain cleanup proposal and is expected to determine, during the coming months, if that plan is adequate or if the feds will impose a different remedy that what would likely have a bigger price tag. Tentative plans call for the EPA to solicit public comment on the state’s draft plan late this winter in anticipation of making a decision this summer, according to state officials.

Bray believes the Legislature has a chance this year to make some long-lasting changes for the good of the environment and Vermonters.

“Every seat in the Statehouse puts you in an excellent position to do meaningful work,” Bray said. “But what’s particularly attractive to me in the work of Natural Resources and Energy is that we do work in there that will have what we hope is a positive impact for decades to come. I am very much oriented to long-term thinking.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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