Session dismissed


Tuesday, May 6
It was a short, but not terribly sweet, legislative session that came to an end on Saturday at the Statehouse in Montpelier.

Back in January, it was clear that, with tough economic times and declining tax revenues, this session would be one where fiscal austerity ruled the day.

Lawmakers put together a $1.2 billion state budget for the 2009 fiscal year that was balanced and required no new taxes. They did it in the shortest legislative session in about a decade, saving the state roughly $1 million by adjourning two weeks ahead of schedule.

Unlike past years, Gov. James Douglas praised lawmakers at the end of the session for crafting "a responsible, compassionate and balanced budget."

Aside from the last minute dust-up over Douglas' economic stimulus plan, there was little partisan squabbling and almost everyone got what they wanted -- given the financial circumstances.

Most of Douglas' stimulus plan was approved, including money for housing loans and incentives for housing construction in downtowns, a sales tax holiday in July, business incentives and increased borrowing for transportation projects.

While Douglas' plan to lease the Vermont Lottery went over with a thud, so did the Democrats' attempts to repeal Act 82, which will require two votes to approve school budgets over a certain threshold.

An attempt to decriminalize marijuana failed, but a plan to close and consolidate some of the state prisons passed.

There was little progress made in fixing some of the deficiencies in the state's Catamount Health Plan, but more money was made available for clearing the backlog of road maintenance projects. The state government itself shared in the budget pain by freezing salaries and shedding positions at all levels.

Douglas signed an energy conservation measure, but he will likely veto a bill to require Entergy to guarantee the financial future of Vermont Yankee's decommissioning bill.

The Legislature won't come back into session to override any planned vetoes by Douglas -- this, too, is being done to save money. The Democrats don't have the votes to override the decommissioning bill veto and failed to override vetoes on campaign finance reform and instant runoff voting.

As Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin put it, "We think the veto session should be held on Election Day, the first week of November."

It looks more and more like House Speaker Gaye Symington will be the Democrats' candidate for governor. She announced she would not seek re-election to the House on Saturday, the first step toward getting into the race. Shumlin said last week that he won't run for lieutenant governor although many had speculated that he would. It's anyone's guess who'll run instead of Shumlin for the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Republican team of Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie will try for a fourth term. Even in a year where Republicans are in trouble up and down the ballot all over the country, Douglas and Dubie seem a reasonably safe bet for re-election. But is inertia a strong enough reason for them to win a fourth time?

Symington will likely be joined by another member of the Legislature. That sets up an interesting referendum for Vermont voters -- the people who came up with new ideas versus the people who blocked their enactment into law.

On health care, education, economic development and energy policy, do people want a fresh approach or more of the same? That is the question on which the election will ultimately turn.


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