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The Bellows Falls hydroelectric facility, which is owned by TransCanada. The Canadian energy company has announced its intention to sell its properties along the Connecticut River.


Building new traditions

Speaker of the House Shap Smith visits the ‘Gateway to Vermont’

BRATTLEBORO—Speaker of the House Shap Smith laughed.

No, said the state representative, a Democrat from Morrisville. He’s not tired of being asked if he will re-enter the race, either for governor or lieutenant governor.

But for the next few weeks, Smith said, he will focus on finishing the legislative session, which, he predicts, will conclude May 7.

“So, stay tuned,” said Smith, who will leave the Statehouse when his term ends later this year, after 14 years in the House, eight of them as speaker.

On Monday, April 11, however, still very much at work, he spoke at a luncheon held by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce to tout his vision for Vermont.

For the whole of the state to thrive, it needs to evolve and grow, Smith said.

But, he said, Vermonters feel “hidebound” — unwilling to accept new ideas — to do as they have always done. Or for some Vermonters, they worry about losing local control, he added.

A future with shared resources

At the end of the day, Smith said, Vermonters must acknowledge that they live in an era of constrained resources. Efficiencies and shared resources must be found.

How can Vermont balance shared resources between counties or towns that have different needs? For example, large, resource-rich population centers with smaller, perhaps less-resource-rich, towns with fewer people?

“That’s something we have to look at writ large,” Smith said.

The issue of how best to share services includes everything from schools, to health care, to state programs, he said.

For example, a county government model might work, Smith said.

Sitting at a table in American Legion Post 5 after the Chamber luncheon, which featured the annual appearance of Gov. Peter Shumlin [see story, this issue], Smith said he loves Windham County and visiting Brattleboro.

“I just think this is an incredible gateway for the state of Vermont,” Smith said.

When asked what he’d love to see developed in town, Smith said, “unrestricted access to the river” like a rail trail or bike path.

He traveled to Brattleboro for the luncheon and for a tour of Vermont Yankee in Vernon, which ended up being canceled.

Smith said that passage of the paid-sick-leave bill is the legislative highlight so far this session.

An early supporter of the bill, Smith said its passage took years. In his view, the bill puts all businesses on a level playing field and provides an essential benefit for workers.

Marijuana legalization and the school governance bill, Act 46, have received a lot of attention, he said.

The legalization bill passed the Senate in February. A reworked, bare-bones version barely passed the House Judiciary Committee last week.

Smith said the House was not as focused as the Senate on passing legalization this year. In his opinion, this has created problems because the House members didn’t complete as much homework on the complicated issue.

It might take time to build people’s comfort level with pot legalization, he said.

On the outcry over Act 46, which restructures school districts in the state, Smith said he routinely sees resistance to change where schools are concerned.

Here’s the reality, he said: Vermont has 30,000 fewer students than it did 15 years ago, while schools operate under a governance structure that has not changed significantly since 1892.

Smith said the state and towns, with their limited resources, must collaborate to build a school system that reflects the 21st century.

Hydroelectric power possibilities

The Commons received community queries about the state considering purchasing hydroelectric dams from TransCanada on the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers.

Shumlin recently announced a study committee — still in the exploratory stage — to investigate the pros and cons of the state purchasing the dams.

The committee will explore various questions: What will happen to towns’ grand lists if the state takes over the commercial properties? Will residents be expected to make up any reductions in property taxes going to the state education fund?

Smith said he couldn’t imagine a scenario where the state would want to leave the towns in a worse place than they are now. It wouldn’t make sense, he said.

“It is not our desire to take those funds from the local community or from the education fund,” he added.

Many of the controversial bills this year hit nerves at the local level because they represented a culture change.

Smith agrees, but said in such a situation there are only two important questions. Is the current policy broken? Is the new direction better for Vermont?

“Creating new traditions isn’t a really bad thing,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #352 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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