Ah, it seems like only a couple of days ago that I was celebrating a new era of openness and cooperation in the State Senate, with its Penitent Pro Tem John Campbell vowing to change his ways — and tangibilizing that change with the appointment of Phil Baruth as Majority Leader.
Come to think of it, it WAS just a couple of days ago. And already I’m having second thoughts.
I’m old enough to remember “the new Nixon,” the discredited loser in 1960 (presidency) and 1962 (Governor of California) repackaged and repositioned for his 1968 Presidential campaign. Turned out to be the old Nixon with a new-Nixon mask on.
Similarly, the new Campbell is starting to look a bit like the old one. His reshuffling of Senate committees was positive in many ways, but also bore the classic Campbell touches: a vengeful streak and a soupçon of political arrogance, There’s also significant room to doubt whether his new, steady-hand leadership will survive the stress of a new session.
Campbell seemingly flouted Governor Shumlin’s wishes in packing the Natural Resources Committee with supporters of a three-year wind moratorium. The measure is unlikely to pass the House even if it clears the Senate; but as committee chair, moratorium co-sponsor Bob Hartwell can cause a whole lot of trouble on wind, as well as smart meters and regulatory review for new energy projects. (With the state’s major environmental groups planning to ramp up their pro-renewables campaign, Hartwell’s committee may become a signficant battleground.) Beyond that, the memberships of both Natural Resources and Finance appear unfriendly to environmental initiatives across the board.
Campbell’s mean streak was on display in the shafting of Ginny Lyons, longtime chair of Natural Resources, who was removed against her will (and without any good reason) after pushing hard for a reappointment; she left the building without comment after the committee lineup was announced. Also, there was Ann Cummings’ jump-before-she-could-be-pushed departure from the Finance Committee chairmanship.
The naming of Prog/Dem Tim Ashe as chair of the Finance Committee might seem to be a blow against Shumlin’s hold-the-line position on tax increases, but Ashe sounds like he’s willing to play nice. Peter Hirschfeld of the Vermont Press Bureau (article published in the Friday Times Argus; available behind a paywall here) reported that Ashe is “eager to help Gov. Shumlin fulfill a pledge not to raise broad-based taxes.”
Which kinda leaves me wondering how much Prog is left in this Prog/Dem, and whether he had to make any promises in order to land the chairmanship, but let’s move on.
The real worm in the Senate apple might, ironically, be Campbell’s most bruited reform measure: his promise to bring some contentious bills to a floor vote whether they are cleared by committee or not. As Seven Days’ Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz reported, this has ruffled more than a few feathers among Senate vets who are fond of the committee system — especially those who will be chairing committees, and don’t want to see their authority diluted.
But beyond that is another sticky wicket. The committee system acts as a safety valve, allowing leadership to smother inconvenient legislation. If issues like death with dignity, marijuana legalization, and a wind moratorium are brought to the floor, then Senators will have to cast some politically dicey votes. That’s part of the job in many cases; but if a Senate bill is likely to be killed in the House, then those votes will have been cast in vain. And they may prove to be political albatrosses in 2014. Legislators don’t like to stick their necks out for no good purpose, and Campbell’s reform has opened the door to exactly that.
Sometime between now and adjournment — or multiple times — Campbell may have to choose between breaking his single biggest promise and forcing his colleagues to take risks without potential reward. Either way, all those senators who stifled their doubts and granted Campbell another chance may well come to rue their generosity.