By JOHN FLOWERS
VERGENNES — The 2009 legislative session is just getting off to a start this week, but Addison County’s only freshman lawmaker has already built a new coalition under the Golden Dome.
The loosely knit collection of more than 30 Statehouse newbies is calling itself the “Freshmen ’09ers,” a bipartisan group that has pledged to periodically caucus and help each other learn the parliamentary ropes under the Golden Dome during what is expected to be a very difficult, cash-strapped session.
“I’m very excited,” said Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, and coordinator of the Freshman ’09ers. “I’m looking forward to it. I know it’s a tough time and I know it’s going to be an extremely difficult session.”
Lanpher, 53, is a Vergennes city councilor who was elected to one of the Addison-3’s two House seats in a tight election this past November. With the campaigning finally over, Lanpher and the other newly elected freshmen legislators have been going through orientation sessions at the Statehouse to get their bearings so they can hit the ground running when the gavel drops this week.
Lanpher has been enjoying the tutelage, delivered by the legislative council, sergeant at arms and other Statehouse staff.
“Being elected is like being given by the voters a very powerful vehicle,” Lanpher said. “The orientation process was like allowing (the freshmen) to have the racetrack all to ourselves to practice with all of the real players — with the legislative council, the media and the Vermont Supreme Court.”
The incoming class was able to preside over a simulated budget cutting session, listening to testimony and then breaking up into smaller groups to consider action.
“It wasn’t for real, but it will be real very soon,” Lanpher said, noting the current fiscal problems with which the General Assembly will have to deal this winter.
Lanpher has somewhat of an advantage of having seen the “real” legislative process up-close before. She represented the Vermont Department of Health in 2006 in advocating for bill H.480, a measure that, among other things, now requires behind-the-counter placement of drugs from which methamphetamine can be derived.
“I got a feel for the environment and how things work,” Lanpher said.
Still, Lanpher knows there will be fairly steep learning curve for herself and her fellow freshmen. With that in mind, she has taken on the duties as coordinator of the Freshmen ’09ers in an effort to organize social and political gatherings during the session to keep the group sharp.
“This will wane over time, I’m sure, but what we will establish is a line of communication,” Lanpher said. “We will need to rely on each other, and others, to keep ourselves informed.”
House and Senate leaders will soon hand out committee assignments. Lanpher has declared interest in being a member of the either the Natural Resources, Transportation or Health Care committees.
“There’s not one bad committee,” Lanpher said. “I can’t think of one place where I wouldn’t be making a difference.”
She knows this could be a rough year to break into state politics. That’s because Vermont is dealing with a revenue shortfall that last month required officials to trim $20 million from the current general fund budget. Lawmakers are anticipating having to cut millions more during the coming months, and planning for the fiscal year 2010 spending plan is shaping up as an excruciating chore.
“It will be difficult, but not impossible,” Lanpher said of the challenging financial times ahead. “It’ll be unfortunate, though, if we fall into some of the partisan traps.”
Lanpher and other lawmakers are hopeful that Congress and incoming President Barack Obama come through with an economic stimulus package that could inject millions of federal aid into the state’s transportation infrastructure as well as its health care and renewable energy programs.
“It’s amazing to think about what’s possible,” Lanpher said.