April 23, 2018
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Vt. lawmakers to tackle Irene recovery, budget

By DAVE GRAM, The Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont lawmakers’ top priorities this year include balancing the state budget and finding ways to pay for the ongoing recovery from Tropical Storm Irene as they return Tuesday for the second half of their two-year term.

Both House and Senate convene at 10 a.m. and are slated to pick up business where they left off when they adjourned in May, with the House to debate a bill requiring safe cleaning products in schools.

The Senate will be taking up a possible override of a veto by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin of a bill requiring testing of private wells for arsenic and other toxic substances.

But the big, longer-term issues will include how to close an estimated $75 million budget gap and paying for Irene recovery.

Shumlin said Dec. 12 he would ask lawmakers to find nearly $25 million in additional money in the current budget for Irene-related costs. Those costs range from more than $690,000 for supplies and equipment used by National Guard personnel in responding to the emergency to $1.75 million for cleaning up spills of petroleum products caused by flooding.

“I think it’s going to be about rebuilding the infrastructure of the state of Vermont,” House Speaker Shap Smith said Monday of the upcoming session.

One concern is the fate of the state office complex in Waterbury, which was flooded by the Winooski River when Irene swept through Vermont on Aug. 28. Most of the state departments and agencies housed there have since been scattered to other locations, amid questions about whether to rebuild in that flood plain or move the operations elsewhere.

“I have confidence that we will have set the direction for the state office complex when we leave,” Smith said.

Lawmakers also will be weighing a plan announced by Gov. Peter Shumlin in December to replace the closed Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, also flooded by Irene, with a new, 15-bed facility in Berlin, expanded psychiatric units in Brattleboro and Rutland and more services for the mentally ill in community settings.

In another Irene-related matter, a House committee will be holding hearings on the treatment of the state’s rivers after the flooding. Environmentalists have complained that fish habitats were destroyed and rivers made more prone to future floods when construction equipment went into stream beds, digging stone to rebuild roads reinforce riverbanks.

On budget issues, the 2012 legislative session is expected to be another in a series in which lawmakers look for potential savings, as they try to close a projected $75 million shortfall in the next fiscal year that begins July 1. But they’ll be getting resistance to any further human services cuts. The liberal-leaning Vermont Workers Center was promising to stage a “Put People First” rally at the Statehouse at noon on Tuesday.

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