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Campbell Sets Priorities For Vt. Legislature

President Pro Tem Says No. 1 Goal Is Addressing State Budget Shortfall

Windsor County Sen. John Campbell speaks with a reporter after Governor Douglas' address on January 7, 2010.

Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Windsor County Sen. John Campbell speaks with a reporter after Governor Douglas' address on January 7, 2010. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Montpelier — Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell’s No. 1 priority this legislative session is addressing the state’s budget shortfall of $50 million to $70 million in fiscal year 2014.

Campbell says the fiscal cliff negotiations in Congress give the state an opportunity to revisit government’s role in delivering social services across all agencies and departments. He doesn’t think the time is right for raising state revenues.

“Belt tightening is something that’s very difficult to do, but if you still have room to pull it in another notch, that’s the first thing we should be doing, rather than seeking additional revenues,” the Quechee Democrat said in an interview.

Campbell didn’t name any specific programs or services he’d cut, but said the administration and the Agency of Human Services need to take a close look at current services and shave off inefficiencies and eliminate redundant or dysfunctional programs.

He supports Gov. Peter Shumlin’s no-new-broad-based-taxes pledge. Although Campbell wants to protect vulnerable Vermonters, especially the elderly, children, and the disabled, he says it’s impossible for Vermont to make up the difference for expected federal budget cuts, which could hit local preschool and afterschool programs, and state heating fuel assistance and workforce training programs, among other services.

In a joint memo from early October, the Joint Fiscal Office and the state’s Department of Finance and Mangement estimate that imminent reductions in federal funding could total $15 million annually, with about half associated with the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program .

The memo says that whatever the outcome of federal budget talks in January, “all areas of federal funding will be under continued pressure for constriction in both the near and long term.” The memo highlights 13 different funding pots which will be affected if automatic spending cuts take effect.

Campbell’s other key priority is pushing for a community-based model of mental health care, partly in response to what he views as the state’s longtime failure to prioritize mental health issues.

The rebuilding of the Vermont State Hospital destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene 16 months ago is key to the community care transition, Campbell said. He’d ask the incoming Institutions Committee chair, who oversees the capital construction bill, to make rebuilding the hospital the state’s top infrastructure priority.

Although FEMA’s refusal to help fund the reconstruction is a serious problem, said Campbell, he’s confident that the state will secure funding, and he is willing to put other capital projects on hold indefinitely, to more quickly break ground on the state hospital, hopefully sometime in 2013.

As for community-based care, Campbell said: “Access to quality mental health care is really the issue here. My personal opinion is that the best setting for that is within the community itself, rather than in an institutional model. That’s why I supported the smaller bed facility.”

Social issues will be a factor this session. Death with dignity, marijuana decriminalization, gun control, child care worker unionization, and a wind energy moratorium are all topics Campbell is certain will come up in committees.

Many of these topics are carried over from legislative battles in the last session. A number of state senators complained that these subjects weren’t given sufficient airing on the Senate floor.

Campbell is ambivalent about new gun control legislation in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. “I don’t think private individuals should have assault rifles, but that’s so broad,” Campbell said. “And that may not address the issue we’re trying to solve.”

“I don’t know how well that will be received, because of the fact that the NRA in Vermont is very powerful,” he said. Campbell wouldn’t commit to any position on an automatic weapons ban before specific legislation is drafted. He is concerned about constitutional conflicts created by state regulation of weapons.

Campbell presided over sometimes tangled Senate proceedings in the last biennium that put his leadership position at risk. As a result, Senate Finance Chair Ann Cummings, D-Montpelier, launched a failed bid for the President Pro Temporeslot earlier this year. Campbell promised this year’s proceedings will be smoother, with more careful committee assignments, timely passage of bills to the floor and strict punctuality rules.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, chair of Health and Welfare, is likely to replace retiring Sen. Bill Carris, D-Rutland, as his second-in-command. When Campbell was majority leader, Ayer worked as his deputy.

Campbell said he’d miss veteran Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, an “almost iconic” Statehouse character with a famous talent for drafting legislation, and a regular political ally of Campbell’s. “Vince is one of those guys, where you sometimes either love him or hate him,” said Campbell. “I consider Vince a friend, and I know I’m going to miss his daily counsel.”