In Vermont, one-party rule takes hold

Posted Jan. 15, 2012, at 9:31 p.m.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — As its first order of business this year, the Vermont Senate overwhelmingly voted to uphold Gov. Peter Shumlin’s veto of a bill requiring testing of private water supplies, legislation the same body had passed less than nine months earlier.

Why the change of heart?

Some observers saw the reversal as a sign of the sway Shumlin — who was Senate president pro tem until a bit more than a year ago and whose fellow Democrats hold strong majorities in both the Senate and House — holds over the Legislature.

Other governors — Howard Dean was the last — have enjoyed parts of their tenure when members of their party have controlled both chambers of the Legislature. But Dean had served as lieutenant governor until Gov. Richard Snelling died, and his relations with lawmakers were not as close as Shumlin’s.

Vermont is one of 33 states with one-party rule, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans control both chambers of the legislatures and the governors’ offices in 22, Democrats in 11.

In Vermont, those on the outside looking in — mainly Republicans — say the first year of Shumlin’s first term has been marked by a loss of the separation of powers, the give-and-take between the legislative and executive branches of government envisioned in both the U.S. and Vermont constitutions.

“Last year there was almost complete deference to the executive branch,” said Sen. Vincent Illuzzi of northeastern Vermont, who has traditionally run as a Republican but won both the Democratic and GOP nominations in his last re-election campaign. “There was no push-back, there was no challenge, there was no questioning.”

Illuzzi’s cause was not helped by the fact that there are only eight Republicans in the 30-member Senate.

Shumlin has served two stints as president pro tem, and it was during his second one, the four years ending in 2010, that he cemented close alliances with the current crop of legislative leaders. Senate Pro Temp John Campbell, D-Windsor, effectively was Shumlin’s deputy as majority leader and moved up to his current rank with Shumlin’s ascension to the governor’s office.

The two Senate leaders and a House leadership headed by Democratic Speaker Shap Smith worked as a team in several pitched battles with then-Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican who squared off with the Legislature over the state budget, gay marriage and several bills related to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

Illuzzi, who has represented Essex and Orleans counties since 1981, said he saw Shumlin’s influence in full force last year when he failed in his efforts to amend ambitious health insurance reform legislation that was the centerpiece of the governor’s 2011 agenda.

Rep. Don Turner of Milton, the leader of 48 Republicans in the 150-member House, said his party’s ability to scrutinize the agenda of Shumlin and majority Democrats is more limited now than it was during the last term, when his party held a similar number of seats but the Republican Douglas led the executive branch.

It often takes detailed research to launch a credible challenge or new idea on tax or budget policy, Turner said in an interview. “Before, House Republicans could go to the administration and say ‘What about this?’ But in the last year I’m now in the leadership and I’ve got no place to go.”

The Legislature has its own researchers in the nonpartisan Joint Fiscal Office and Legislative Council, but Turner said those offices usually are tied up doing work for legislative committees and have little time left over to do research to provide the factual basis for Republican proposals.

Democrats don’t see a problem.

“One-party rule doesn’t mean everybody agrees with everything that happens,” said Smith, who is in his second term as speaker. “Not all Democrats think alike, and not all Republicans think alike.”

He also said he didn’t see anything extraordinary about Shumlin’s relations with lawmakers. “Every governor has influence over the Legislature,” Smith said.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, who represents Washington County, knows what it’s like to be in the minority. The one pure Progressive Party member in the Senate — another ran on a Progressive-Democratic “fusion” ticket — Pollina was philosophical about who holds power at the Statehouse.

Democrats “have worked really hard” to win their big majorities. “I respect that. It’s the spoils of victory. If Republicans want to change it, they need to win more seats.”

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