By Rep. Mike Yantachka
As I drove to Montpelier last week, I felt excited by the prospect of the changes that would be taking place in Vermont’s government, changes that would offer new challenges as well as new opportunities. The 2016 election produced a sweeping change of leadership in Montpelier, from the governor and lieutenant governor to the House and Senate leadership.
Both House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell decided not to run for re-election to their respective seats. With the election of Lt. Governor Phil Scott as governor, and Senator David Zuckerman as lt. governor, the state of Vermont is in new hands. The change extended to the Legislature with the election of Representative Mitzi Johnson (D- North Hero) as Speaker of the House and Chittenden County Senator Tim Ashe (D/P) as President Pro Tempore. Johnson previously served as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
The first week of the 2017 legislative session was filled with the pomp and circumstance of the departure of the old administration of Governor Peter Shumlin and the inauguration of the new administration of Governor Phil Scott. But before those events took place, the House and Senate had to convene and elect their own leadership.
In her acceptance speech, Speaker Johnson reminded us that “The campaign process tends to herd us toward simple sound bites-like those that you see on campaign literature – but the answers are not as simple.” She admonished us to “take time to understand the problem we’re trying to solve.” Johnson raised the challenge for the Legislature to address the problems of the uneven distribution of jobs throughout the state despite having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country; building ladders out of poverty that do not come with built-in disincentives; climate change that poses challenges to our agriculture, public health, tourism base, and ecology as well our state infrastructure and budget; and the many challenges of building a strong, healthy future, in a way we can afford. She asked the House to evaluate state government and prioritize what Vermonters most need, “so that we may preserve the long-term health and wellness of our state,” and she committed to working with the administration to achieve this goal.
The following day, newly elected Governor Phil Scott was sworn in and, in his inaugural speech, laid out his vision of the future he hopes we will build together. He said he would ask every state agency to work toward three goals: improve economic opportunity, make Vermont more affordable, and protect the most vulnerable Vermonters. These are goals we can all agree on as we start our work this year.
Speaker Johnson also announced some significant changes to the work of House committees. First, there were many changes to committee assignments as 33 new legislators joined our ranks. Some committees had a larger turnover than others, and a balance of veteran legislators and freshmen had to take place on all committees. Several committees saw significant changes to their responsibilities. In particular, the Natural Resources and Energy committee, on which I served for the last six years, was totally reorganized. Responsibility for natural resources, land management, and Act 250 was reassigned to the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. Forestry oversight was moved to the Agriculture and Forests Committee, and a brand-new committee, Energy and Technology, was formed to take over responsibilities for energy, telecommunications, and IT infrastructure, including the IT systems of state government.
I will be serving along with seven other veteran representatives on this new committee. I am looking forward to continuing working on energy policy while learning more about how we can expand high-speed broadband throughout the state. Both energy and telecom are key components to economic development in Chittenden County and beyond. Since no single committee had oversight of Vermont’s many complex computer systems, our committee will be taking a deep look into the various systems, how they interact, the software platforms they are built on, what they cost, and the security measures used to protect vital data and the systems themselves.
As the session develops, I will continue to keep you informed about the work my colleagues and I are doing. I also invite you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (email@example.com), and you can find this article and past articles at my website: www.MikeYantachka.com.