Leahy, Shumlin talk Syria, Vermont Yankee; prepare for budget battles

MIDDLEBURY — Two of Vermont’s leading government officials — U.S. Sen. Pat Leahy and Gov. Peter Shumlin — shared their views on issues ranging from the Vernon nuclear power plant to potential military reprisals against Syria during a recent joint visit to Addison County.
The two politicians, both Democrats, were in Middlebury on Aug. 29 for the official opening of the new Addison County Transit Resources headquarters on Creek Road. Leahy and Shumlin had time to offer some brief responses to some questions posed at the event by the Addison Independent.
President Barack Obama this past weekend asked Congress to vote to authorize military action against Syria for using chemical weapons against its own population. According to a Wednesday online tally from CNN, Leahy and fellow Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were listed as “undecided,” as was U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
But Leahy, while in Middlebury, made no secret of his opinion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime should suffer some consequences for its actions.
“We are dealing with totally irrational people,” Leahy said of Syria’s leadership, singling out al-Assad, whom he said is apparently “willing to kill thousands upon thousands of his own people to hold on to power.”
“That’s not rational,” Leahy continued. “He’s been given all kinds of opportunities to either go to a safe area in the country, to live in exile in his own country, or to go to other countries. He’s turned it down. Meantime, more and more die, and you see some of the horrendous casualties, not on combatants, but children, innocent civilians. I think we’re seeing most of our European allies say, ‘Something has to be done.’ The Arab League has condemned the use of chemical weapons, which are really a war crime in any way they are used. I expect there will be a reaction from the United States, in concert with some of our allies. We are not going to see something like Iraq, we know what a terrible mistake Iraq was, $2 trillion in debt or more; we never should have been in. There are no good options.”
Leahy also voiced frustration with the prospect of a federal budget impasse when Congress reconvenes.
“People ought to vote yes or no on the budget,” he said. “If they keep trying to stall it, what they are saying is, ‘Vote maybe.’”
Leahy said a handful of his GOP colleagues aim to block the budget from going to conference committee “even though there would be more Republicans than Democrats in the conference. That’s foolish. That might feed someone’s ego or their efforts to run for president, but it doesn’t help the country. Let’s pass a real budget. Sequestration cuts don’t help anybody.”
Meanwhile, Leahy said the new Farm Bill is headed to conference committee, and he will be one of the conferees.
“A lot of the Republicans who balked in the House last year now wish they had seen the Senate bill go through and saved $25 billion. (The bill) is well balanced,” he said. “We’ll keep trying.”
Both Leahy and Shumlin discussed Entergy’s recent announcement that it will close the Vernon Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant next year. The Louisiana company has announced it will put the plant in “safe store” mode for the foreseeable future pending decommissioning. Many state officials — including state Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the Senate majority whip — have expressed serious concerns about mothballing VY for an extended period of time.
Shumlin is also concerned, but laid out a closure scenario for the aging plant he believes will occur.
“When Entergy talks about safe store, they are talking about the period between now and when it is decommissioned,” Shumlin said. “We all know it will have to sit for five or six years to cool off before you can touch it.”
He anticipates around 300 employees will be needed to manage the plant during the “cooling off” period.
Shumlin expects Entergy to move directly to decommissioning once the plant has cooled off. He believes decommissioning could cost up to $1 billion, which he said could provide additional jobs for Vermonters.
Once the plant is decommissioned — a process Shumlin said could take around eight years — the governor wants to see the state prepared to place a non-nuclear power generating venture on the site.
“I feel very strongly that it is not in Vermont’s best interest to have the carcass of a nuclear power plant sit on the banks of the Connecticut River for 60 years, waiting for adequate funding to take it away,” Shumlin said, “so I am going to work tirelessly with our congressional delegation, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and with Entergy to ensure that we decommission the plant as quickly as possible. There are two reasons for that. The first is jobs. That site, when returned to a green field — which let’s not forget was the promise made to Vermonters when it was built — has extraordinary job creating potential for production of other power. The transmission infrastructure is all there.”
Leahy also weighed in on the issue.
“I think Entergy has to be held to the highest possible standards,” he said. “I would urge them, in doing that, to hire the people who are there who are trained. The sad part about it is that I think Entergy looked at it as a dollars and cents thing. I understand that.”
He called the workers at the Vernon plant “some of the best in the country.”
Shumlin also discussed the early forecast for the fiscal year 2015 state budget, a spending plan the Legislature will start preparing this coming January.
“This next budget will continue to be a challenge. There won’t be surpluses and money that we don’t know what to do with,” Shumlin said. “Some of the money that was ‘sitting around,’ we spent on the last budget. There is no cushion. It’s going to be a tough budget, we are going to have to be prudent and thoughtful, but I am not concerned that there is going to be an insurmountable problem, and (the budget) will not require new revenue.”
The governor also spoke of Vermont’s upcoming implementation of a federally-mandated health care exchange as part of the Affordable Care Act. The exchange, known as “Vermont Health Connect,” will be a “marketplace where individuals, families and small businesses in the state can compare public and private health plans and select one that fits their needs and budget,” according to a Website set up to explain the new system. That system is designed to ensure all people in the state have health insurance. People will be able to enroll for their insurance plans beginning next month, with coverage to take effect on Jan. 1.
Shumlin said he’s optimistic Vermont Health Connect will have a successful rollout and believes the state is better positioned than others to meet the federal requirement.
“There’s not a governor in the country who isn’t scrambling to get it done,” he said. “Those of us who chose to do it ourselves, I believe, are going to be much happier than the governors who chose to partner with the federal government. When I talk my fellow governors who are asking the federal government to help them, they are way behind. Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, states that chose to go it alone, I believe are going to be very happy. It’s hard work. It will be like any major change; there will be hiccups and glitches. But we will be ready on Oct. 1.”
Shumlin acknowledged consumers will have to adapt, but said they will like what they see. 
“Obviously, change is a little bit frightening and intimidating,” he said. “But we have navigators to help, people in place to answer questions. Vermonters are smart. Vermont businesspeople are smart. When folks actually go to the Website and look at the options, they are going to realize that (the exchange) is helpful to them; it gives them good health insurance choices while we’re pulling down huge subsidies from the federal government to help us (pay for health care) that we don’t get today. It’s also simple, clear and it’s one-stop shopping.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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