Local reps receive their committee assignments
MONTPELIER — Peter Conlon gazed briefly into the rearview mirror last week, recalling his boyhood growing up in Montpelier. His route from his childhood home to Montpelier High School took him behind the Vermont Statehouse and its shiny golden dome. He’d stop in occasionally as a student and citizen, drinking in the splendor of this ornate bastion of democracy in his own backyard.
Fast forward some 35 years.
Conlon returned to the Statehouse last Wednesday — this time as a member of the Vermont House, representing the Addison-2 district. The Cornwall Democrat was clearly moved by the long, winding road that has led him back to his hometown and the Statehouse, where he is now more than a visitor; he’s a player in state government.
“It was very moving,” Rep. Conlon said of his swearing-in and the associated pomp and circumstance.
“Despite the fact I have been through this building a bunch of times, and lived in the shadow of it … it is pretty amazing,” he said with a giant smile.
But the honeymoon quickly receded into the realities of the job on Thursday, as Conlon and his colleagues listened to Gov. Phil Scott’s goals for the state (see related story on Page 1). They also learned the committees on which they will serve to help carry out that agenda.
The committee rosters show that Addison County lawmakers will be well positioned to influence the state’s energy, education, finance, environmental and tax policies during the next two years.
House leaders named two county lawmakers to coveted spots on high-profile “money” committees.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, was returned to the House Appropriations Committee. There, she will have a hand in shaping the state budget, a perennial challenge for the Legislature. And the panel will have its work cut out for it right from the get-go. Scott confirmed on Thursday a looming $70 million revenue hole in the fiscal year 2018 state budget.
Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, earned a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel in charge of tax policy. Baser, a longtime financial planner, had served on the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee during the last biennium. He was pleased to land a spot on a money committee during this, his sophomore term in the Legislature.
“I’m very enthusiastic about it,” Baser said of his new role. “I’m a little bit humbled by it; this is only my second term. I worked hard my first two years, and my background is with money as a financial planner, so I think it’s a good fit.”
Baser is a self-described fiscal conservative, and has traditionally urged restraint when it comes to raising state taxes or fees.
“Rarely do we institute fees or a higher tax and then decide two, four or six years later to take the money back,” Baser said. “The money always seems to get spent. Most anyone in this body, if they went door-to-door, heard a fairly large number of people say it’s expensive to live here, and it’s a cumulative thing. We can’t keep on adding on (taxes and fees) indefinitely; I think that’s going to create a problem.”
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, will resume his duties as chairman of the House Education Committee, a panel that made many headlines during the past two years with bills dealing with school governance consolidation. He is joined on the committee by Conlon, who chairs the Addison Central School District board. Conlon believes his committee assignment will serve his public schools constituency well.
Conlon believes Act 46, the state’s school governance consolidation law, will continue to be a major topic this biennium.
“Act 46 — the tweaks, adjustments and challenges to it — are probably going to drive a lot of the agenda,” Conlon said. “I hope my familiarity with it and the fact that we’ve been through unification, that I might be able to provide insight that will be helpful.”
As has been the case in recent years, Addison County will get substantial representation on the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. Veteran lawmaker and longtime farmer Harvey Smith returns to the panel, and is joined this year by Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury.
Smith has spent the majority of his 14-year legislative career on House Agriculture. He has held many volunteer positions within the ag industry, including chairmanship of the Addison County Farm Bureau.
“I am excited about being back on the agriculture committee,” Smith said, noting the panel this biennium will have added jurisdiction over forests, forests products and parks. “That’s going to bring a new twist … It’s interesting that it’s not just the agriculture committee that we had before.”
Smith said he has never seen as big a shift in committee jurisdictions, and committee memberships, as he has seen this year.
Sheldon, a second-term lawmaker, served the last two years on the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. She believes her skills as a land use planner will be easily transferrable and beneficial to her new committee.
“I was surprised, but I am excited,” Sheldon said of her committee switch.
She believes her new committee will plunge into the water quality work the Legislature began during the last biennium, as part of a long, costly, federally mandated cleanup of Lake Champlain. Part of the cleanup strategy will include working with farmers on strategies to prevent manure/fertilizer runoff into the lake.
Sheldon was a key player in water quality issues as a member of House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, so she brings some good experience to the House Agriculture and Forestry panel.
“It’s cross-pollination,” she said of the rationale behind her new assignment. “We’ll be looking at how land use issues get addressed with the new committee structure.”
Newly elected Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, was named to the House Corrections and Institutions Committee. This means she will have a say in prioritizing the states capital improvement policy and building projects, as well as Vermont’s prison system. Scheu, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp., was pleased with her assignment.
“It was one of my top choices,” she said of her assignment. “It’s a money committee and a policy committee, and I am very interested in both.”
She and her colleagues will deal with Vermont’s two-year capital plan, which includes investments in state-owned properties, including courthouses, police barracks, parks and landmarks. The panel also has oversight over state agencies that run grant programs dealing with economic development and historic preservation projects.
On the corrections side, the committee will deal with issues related to prisons and inmates, and the financial social justice debates surrounding those topics.
“It’s an interesting combination of topics,” she said of her committee work.
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, found himself with a new assignment. He will serve on the House Energy and Technology Committee. He had been serving on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Van Wyck welcomed the switch, as he has voiced concerns during the past two years about the state’s renewable energy policies, which have resulted in a rapid proliferation of solar arrays — particularly in New Haven.
Van Wyck believes the committee may look at possible changes to Section 248, the state rules by which renewable energy project proposals are evaluated by the Vermont Public Services Board.
“I have an interest in the energy part of it, as far not only the cost of energy, but also where we site renewables,” Van Wyck said. “As we see in Addison County, there are a lot of issues (related to solar siting).”
As a longtime senior project analyst with the University of Vermont, Van Wyck believes he has the background to help chart the state’s information technology priorities.
“I have been doing it for 40 years,” Van Wyck said of his professional experience with IT. “But it’s a rather daunting task, because there’s so much information technology within the state; I’m not sure how we’re going to get a handle on it.”
Rep. Alyson Eastman, I-Orwell, had again been tapped for the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee, but Gov. Phil Scott has different plans for her. As previously reported by the Independent, Scott appointed Eastman the new deputy secretary of agriculture. This will require Scott to appoint a candidate to serve Eastman’s two-year term.
Senate Committee assignments released on Friday afternoon revealed that Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, will continue to chair the Health & Welfare Committee, while Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, will remain leader of the Natural Resources & Energy Committee. In addition, Bray will serve on the Education Committee, and Ayer has been named to the Government Operations Committee.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].