Politically Thinking: 2010 legislative session kicks off

The legislative session that began this week will be one of the most important in years. Key budget policy issues — for the state and for school districts — are on the agenda. Vermont Yankee’s license expires in just over two years, and the Legislature must take positive action if the plant is to continue operating. Much of the session will be driven by the politics of the first open-seat gubernatorial campaign in eight years.November 2008 exit polls showed that 37 percent of Vermont voters called themselves Democrats, 23 percent Republicans, and 39 percent independents. Because Vermont does not have voter registration by party, exit poll results must substitute for party registration data. The partisan distribution of Vermont voters in 2010 will likely closely resemble the 2008 exit poll. If one of the five Democratic candidates for governor is to be elected in November, he or she will have to be supported by a substantial fraction of the independents, and by nearly all of the Democrats. In the last two elections about 60 percent of the independents voted for Republican Jim Douglas. Those same independents voted by a comparable margin for Democratic candidates such as Peter Welch in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2008. Douglas appealed to independents in 2006 and 2008 by arguing that there needed to be partisan balance in Montpelier. A Republican governor would check the impulses of a Democratic legislative majority. Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie will presumably use the same theme as part of his campaign for governor in 2010. The Democrats will surely maintain majority control of both houses of the Legislature in this fall’s elections. While the Republicans may gain seats in both chambers, the Democrats’ current margin in seats is much too large for the Republicans to organize either the House or the Senate in 2011. Will independent Vermont voters be willing to trust control of both political branches of state government to the Democrats? The answer to this question may well determine the outcome of this fall’s gubernatorial election. Three of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Susan Bartlett, Doug Racine, and Peter Shumlin — now serve in the Legislature. Vermonters’ perceptions of the Legislature’s performance over the next four to five months could end up either helping or hurting these senators who are running for governor. If the Legislature is seen as overly responsive to interest groups such as public sector unions and anti-nuclear activists, and overly willing to raise taxes, a legislative Democrat could be a relatively weaker general election candidate. However, if the Legislature is seen as working constructively with the Douglas Administration on fiscal policy issues, and if the Vermont Yankee decision (assuming a legislative vote on Yankee even happens in 2010) is seen as the result of a balanced and deliberative process, a candidate now serving in the Legislature could strengthen his or her credentials to be governor, especially with the key independent voters.Two Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Matt Dunne and Deb Markowitz — are not currently legislators. As the primary campaign develops, will Dunne and Markowitz emphasize that they are not legislators, stressing instead their executive, managerial, and non-governmental experience? And what role will Brian Dubie play in this year’s legislative session? Will the lieutenant governor remain the low-key presiding officer of the Senate, or will he become more actively involved in the controversial policy issues on the Legislature’s agenda that he will certainly have to address as a candidate for governor in the fall?Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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