MONTPELIER — After two years of admitted dysfunction in the state Senate, Sen. John Campbell, the president pro tem, last month promised his colleagues a new dynamic in the body.
Thursday afternoon, the three-person Committee on Committees delivered one.
The Senate hierarchy underwent a major shift when leadership unveiled a roster of committee assignments that saw one longtime chairwoman kicked from her perch and some rank-and-file members elevated to new prominence.
Though Republicans number only seven in the 30-member body, two scored committee leadership posts Thursday. Rutland County Sen. Kevin Mullin will take over as chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, a post vacated by the outgoing Vince Illuzzi.
Rutland County Sen. Peg Flory, meanwhile, will take over as chairwoman of the Committee on Institutions, which was formerly led by Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington County Democrat.
Essex-Orleans County Sen. Bobby Starr will be chairman of Agriculture, replacing the retiring Sara Kittel. Sen. Jane Kitchel, of Caledonia County, will stay on as chairwoman of Appropriations; Sen. Dick Sears will continue as the longtime head of Judiciary; and Addison County Sen. Claire Ayer will lead the Committee on Health and Welfare.
In by far the highest-profile snub, Chittenden County Democrat Ginny Lyons was stripped of her post as chairwoman of the Committee on Natural Resources. She will be replaced by Hartwell, who will lead the fight this year for a three-year moratorium on mountaintop wind development.
Hartwell is also a vocal critic of the Public Service Board. He wants to radically alter the regulatory process for some major energy projects — a sentiment he says some of his new committee-mates share.
“Right now there are a lot of people who get to make a statement (in the Act 248 regulatory process) and then just get ushered out of the process rather than having their position truly heard,” Hartwell said. “It’s kind of an antiquated system that we’d like to bring up to date.”
Sen. Ann Cummings, a Washington County Democrat, will depart her post as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Finance, as per her request to Campbell last month. Cummings may well have been ousted from the post anyway, given her very public dressing-down of Campbell in a failed challenge for his Senate presidency.
She will be replaced by third-term Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat/Progressive from Chittenden County who, at 35 years old, is the youngest member in the body.
Ashe called Finance “the crown jewel of the Senate” and said he’ll use his new influence to expand a debate over the merits of certain tax exemptions. He said he’s eager to help Gov. Peter Shumlin fulfill a pledge not to raise broad-based taxes, and he said he thinks Vermont can avoid doing so by potentially eliminating some of the exemptions that now cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue annually.
“One of my mantras over my four years here … was we should achieve fairness first before thinking about raising revenues,” Ashe said. “In the tax code we have exemptions, some of which are no longer appropriate in the modern area, and we’ll take a look at those.”
Lyons left the Statehouse immediately after the committee assignments were read, saying she couldn’t talk before leaving. The Committee on Committees — it includes Campbell, Grand Isle Democratic Sen. Dick Mazza and Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott — spent the last few weeks fine-tuning the assignments. Lyons had lobbied hard to keep her assignment; Campbell said the decision to strip her of her post didn’t reflect on her past performance.
“Ginny is someone who’s an incredibly bright woman who knows the natural resources field very well,” Campbell said. “Certain people have been in committees for eight to 10 years and there are times when you need to make changes to utilize … their strengths on other (committees).”
Lyons will serve on the Health and Welfare and Finance committees.
Sen. Dick McCormack, a Windsor County Democrat, said he was thrilled with his assignment to serve as chairman of the Committee on Education.
“But I feel terrible for Ginny Lyons,” he said. “I served under her for six years and thought she was a wonderful chair. I think the Natural Resources Committee has been made less green, and it’s up to people to decide whether they think that’s a good idea or not.”
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