Some VT Lawmakers Want Special Session To Determine Where State Money Will Be Best Allocated Following Irene

“Members I think legitimately feel they should have a role in deciding how money is appropriated,” [Senate Pro Tem John] Campbell said, even if the figure is less than the $25 million that would trigger the need for approval from the full Legislature.

Article published Sep 7, 2011
Lawmakers want influence in disaster recovery decisions
By Peter Hirschfeld
MONTPELIER — As the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin considers the role of government in a post-Irene landscape, members of the House and Senate are calling for equal influence in policy decisions that could have long-term impacts on residents of Vermont.

Gov. Peter Shumlin last week voiced his opposition to convening a special legislative session in October. Shumlin said his administration, in concert with a small panel of lawmakers, could oversee the state’s response to tropical storm flooding that damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and washed out scores of roadways and bridges.

Some lawmakers, however, say the decisions are too big, and the stakes too high, for the executive branch alone to control the reins.

“As the magnitude of what we’re talking about becomes clearer, we need a broader conversation about what we’re going to do as a state, not just as an administration, but as a state, to help people recover,” Sen. Anthony Pollina said Tuesday. “And I think the Legislature is the place for that to happen.”

Pollina, a Progressive/Democrat from Washington County, said his comments shouldn’t be viewed as a critique of Shumlin’s disaster response. To the contrary, he says, “I think the administration is doing well so far.”

But Pollina said some of the toughest, and potentially most expensive, decisions still lie ahead. Should the state allocate General Fund money to help the newly homeless rebuild? Should Vermont invest millions in a 1,700-person state office complex in Waterbury rendered uninhabitable by Irene?

“We have some very big open questions right now, and many of them need answers before January,” Pollina said. “It’s certainly appropriate for all those involved in policymaking and revenue raising and spending to come together and take responsibility for this response.”

Rep. Oliver Olsen, a Jamaica Republican whose five-town district has heavy damage, says he “can’t imagine” leaving the post-Irene response entirely in the hands of Shumlin and the Legislature’s five-person Emergency Board. The E-Board, as it’s known in Montpelier, includes Shumlin and the four chairmen of the House and Senate’s respective committees on appropriations and taxes.

The E-Board is authorized by statute to allocate up to 2 percent of the overall state budget — about $25 million this year — without approval from the full Legislature.

Olsen says the issues aren’t just monetary.

“The E-Board is there to deal with money matters, and certainly money is a big part of the equation, but there are a number of other extremely pressing issues related to land use, wastewater,” Olsen says.

Olsen, who has been visiting with some of the hardest-hit constituents in his region, can “literally a few hundred yards down my street point to a place where not only is the street gone, but the front lawns and four homes disappeared into the river.”

“Some of the questions people are asking all over the state are ones that no one has answers for: Are we going to put the earth back where it was? And if so, what’s the legal or regulatory framework we’re working in?” Olsen says. “There’s so many issues that transcend money that need to be addressed, and it has to start happening soon, and they’re the kind of decisions the full Legislature needs to be involved in.”

When the General Assembly adjourned in May, legislative leaders did so in a way that left open the possibility of a special session in October. At the time the move was designed as a contingency plan in the event of severe federal budget cuts. But it now ensures the Legislature can huddle before January, even if Shumlin refuses to call them back for a special session.

At a press conference Tuesday, Shumlin backed away from his blanket opposition to the special session, saying he’s “not against it. It’s just premature.”

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell says he isn’t sure yet whether the situation on the ground will demand a special session in October. But he says he’s glad the option exists.

“Members I think legitimately feel they should have a role in deciding how money is appropriated,” Campbell said, even if the figure is less than the $25 million that would trigger the need for approval from the full Legislature.

With so many communities facing unique challenges, according to Campbell, the “parochialism of the Legislature is almost needed, because you need people with specific knowledge of the communities to make the best spending decisions.”

“And if there are major policy decisions to be made, then I think that’s something that would be unfair to exclude the entire legislative body from participating in,” he says. “The hard part I think is going to be defining what we consider to be major policy decisions.”

House Speaker Shap Smith says he doesn’t envision calling lawmakers back for a special session for funding issues alone, since he doesn’t anticipate the amount needed for disaster response to exceed the authority of the Emergency Board.

As to whether he’ll be compelled to call members back to weigh in on policy questions, Smith says, “It’s a bit preliminary to assess whether those decisions would be something the full Legislature would need to be involved in.”

Rep. Anne Donahue, a Northfield Republican, says lawmakers are only now beginning to consider how Irene has recast the legislative priority list.

“We’re only one week into something that will radically affect the state of Vermont for a long time, and this week, appropriately, has been 100 percent about emergency response,” Donahue says. “Now we’re just beginning to crack the surface of focus on ‘what next?’”

Donahue has long advocated for replacing the Vermont State Hospital, the inpatient mental facility from which patients were evacuated during the flooding.

The Shumlin administration’s proposals for interim solutions to issues at the state complex in Waterbury, Donahue says, could have impacts well into the future.

“Any decision that would have a major long-term impact in any aspect on the state, including long-term financial decisions, I think there has to be legislative involvement,” Donahue says. “And to the extent that any of those decisions have to be made before January, then I think you to do have to call the Legislature in.”

Chief among Shumlin’s objections to a special session, he said last week, are the legislative salaries, travel expenses and other costs involved in convening lawmakers.

Pollina says he sees an easy way to avert the bulk of those expenses.

“We’ve seen neighbors lose homes,” Pollina says. “I think legislators will be willing to come in and discuss these issues and forego their pay.”