MONTPELIER – A rare shakeup in Senate committee assignments Thursday bounced Sen. Virginia Lyons out as chairwoman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee she has led for many years, and put in her place a leading proponent of a statewide moratorium on wind development.
Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, was appointed to chair the committee.
The move sets up a standoff between the House and Senate over wind and renewable power in general, though those who made the decision claimed that was not their intention. The decision also is an unusual Senate snub of the governor, who strongly supports wind power.
Senate committee assignments are made by a three-member panel called the Committee on Committees that consists of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell and Sen. Richard Mazza.
They made several other significant changes, but none more jolting than the Natural Resources Committee.
Among other changes: Sen. Tim Ashe, a Chittenden County Democrat/Progressive, was appointed chairman of the Finance Committee; Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, will chair the Economic Development Committee; and Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, was named chairwoman of the Institutions Committee.
“Sometimes you have to change things up … change the chemistry a bit,” Scott said.
He and Campbell both support a moratorium on wind projects, but said that was not the driving factor behind the change. “We did not center around one issue for any committee chairs,” Campbell said.
Campbell said Lyons will serve on the Health & Welfare and Finance committees, allowing her considerable input on decisions about single-payer health care.
Intended or not, the change means that a wind moratorium bill is more likely to reach the Senate floor. Lyons opposes a moratorium. She could not be reached for comment after the assignments were announced late Thursday afternoon, but before the announcement she knew the decision had been made and said she was not happy about it.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, another supporter of a moratorium, was happy. “I think it substantially increases its chances,” he said.
Asked if he thought the move was made deliberately to push the moratorium, Benning said, “It wouldn’t surprise me, knowing that at least two of the three members of the Committee on Committees support it.”
Hartwell gave up chairing the Institutions Committee to take the helm of Natural Resources. Institutions is considered a good assignment because it involves deciding how to spend millions of dollars. This is also an important time for the committee as the state is in the midst of rebuilding state offices after Tropical Storm Irene.
Hartwell said that made the move a tough one, but he wanted to work on water quality, land-use permitting and the wind moratorium. He said he’d like to see changes to the approval process for energy projects, which now go through the Public Service Board and not Act 250 environmental rules.
Although the committee changes mean that a wind moratorium has a better chance in the Senate, it faces strong opposition in the House and with Gov. Peter Shumlin.
House Natural Resources and Energy Committee Chairman Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, said of the Senate change, “It certainly is a big change.”
Other committee changes brought angst to the Senate too. Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, and Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, both wanted to chair the Senate Finance Committee, where longtime chairwoman Ann Cummings, D-Washington, stepped aside this year.
Instead, the job went to the less experienced and arguably more liberal Ashe. Mazza acknowledged that Shumlin hadn’t favored Ashe’s appointment. “You can’t base your decision on what the governor wants,” Mazza said.
Mullin’s appointment as chairman of Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs rankled some in the labor community, Campbell acknowledged, because the panel hears labor issues. He said Mullin assured him labor bills would get a fair hearing. Mullin replaces Vince Illuzzi, who did not run for re-election to the Senate.
Flory, who will chair Institutions, said she didn’t ask for a chairmanship or for Institutions and was surprised by the appointment. When she was in the House, she served on the Institutions Committee there and had chaired the House Judiciary Committee.
Campbell said of the changes, “I consider this putting a new paint scheme on the Senate.”
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