Williston lawmakers look forward to a productive session

By Mal Boright

Williston’s three members of the state Legislature are pleased with their recently announced committee assignments and are ready for what they foresee as a busy session.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, and Representatives Mary Peterson, D-Williston, and Jim McCullough, D-Williston, spoke with the Observer in separate interviews over the weekend.

Lyons , starting her third term, again chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee and also serves on the Health and Welfare Committee. She had sought both assignments.

“Energy is a huge issue,” Lyons said, citing energy planning and development of renewable energy sources. Also immediately on the Natural Resources Committee table, she said, are snowmobile issues and funding of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department.

Lyons sees energy planning as very important, even though the state’s energy sources “are not yet in crisis.” But, she pointed out, within the next seven to eight years there will be new negotiations for power with Hydro Quebec, and the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant will be nearing the end of its predicted lifespan.

She said there could be legislation coming forward on wind turbine power generation.

“A lot of work needs to be done to protect the environment,” Lyons said. “We have six or seven generation sites identified. Now we need to step back and consider how much renewable energy we need.”

Lyons equated development of energy sources with the purchase of financial securities.

“Diversity lessens the risk,” she said, emphasizing the need for “cheaper, less expensive sources” of power.

Lyons said her personal priorities this session include legislation to prohibit smoking in all the state’s restaurants and bars and passage of a mercury management bill to bring Vermont in line with other New England states.

The Health and Welfare Committee, said Lyons, “is working hard on prescription drug importation. My concern is that we don’t throw out our local pharmacists in the process.”

She added that while the committee has not yet finished taking testimony, the numbers of people who would purchase their prescriptions from Canada and elsewhere under the proposed legislation “so far does not seem sufficient to throw the locals out of business.”

McCullough, in his second term in the House, landed a slot on the Natural Resources and Energy Committee. He served on the Transportation Committee his first term.

“I felt fortunate to get it,” he said of the appointment, adding that it was a “dual first choice” along with the Health and Welfare Committee.

The 150 Vermont House members generally receive appointments to one standing committee, while the 30 senators are named to two committees.

McCullough said the committee priorities are still being set as “we are still feeling our way around.”

“I hope the committee will develop a good energy policy for the future,” noting possible future changes in the purchases of power from Hydro Quebec and the Vermont Yankee situation.

As for other priorities, McCullough said he would like to see a bill providing quality and affordable health care come to a vote.

For at least the first couple of weeks under the golden dome, McCullough has seen “a whole different building than two years ago. I don’t think there has been a line drawn in the sand as in the past.”

Democrats this past election took control of the House and added to their majority in the Senate. House Speaker Gaye Symington (D-Jericho) gave Republicans a couple of committee chairmanships.

“You notice the difference in the hall,” said McCullough of the atmosphere of bipartisanship. “But ask me again a month from now.”

Peterson also got her first choice in committee assignments, a return to the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

“I’m a tax wonk,” she said.

She said her priorities on the committee are “a need to step back and see how the tax system is functioning.”

Included would be a look at the structure of tax credits, particularly corporate tax credits. The program has come under fire recently with charges that some business took tax credits while adding few jobs.

Peterson said the committee has work to do on the Act 68 education finance law “which still has some problems.”

Two major issues she sees are with the state’s Medicaid costs where “there are no revenue sources to keep up with the increases in costs,” and the state’s transportation fund, “that is in some trouble, too.”

An overall priority for Peterson is to extend the life of the local option tax, which is set to expire in 2008. Since Williston instituted the tax, municipal property taxes have dropped substantially.

“I want to extend this tax option to all towns indefinitely,” Peterson said, noting that towns now need legislative approval to add local sales and other taxes.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” she predicted, adding that Gov. Jim Douglas and some fellow lawmakers are skeptical about continuing the local sales tax.