The 2023-24 biennium of the Vermont Legislature convened on Jan. 4 with many new faces in both chambers.
About a third of the members of the House and Senate are newcomers this biennium, filling the seats of members who retired or mounted campaigns for higher office.
The turnover was most evident in the House, where Emily Long, D-Newfane, will serve as House majority leader and where nine new committee chairs have begun work in this the new session.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, announced the leadership of that chamber’s committees. Two chairs are going to members of the Windham County delegation, while vice-chair positions went to three other members.
Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, will chair the House Committee on Ways and Means, which has jurisdiction over tax policy. Kornheiser told VTDigger that she believed the pandemic showed the power of what government can do for people.
“I think there’s so many lessons that we learned then that have really upended some of what we previously thought was possible,” Kornheiser said, adding that she was proud of the passage last session of a child tax credit and that she hopes to continue last year’s efforts to rework the corporate tax code.
Kornheiser wants the state’s tax structure to reflect a commitment to equity, she said. “I think about equity in terms of taxation, both in terms of people paying according to their means and that people understand what their responsibilities are.”
Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, will chair the House Transportation Committee, joining longtime member Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro.
As described on the Legislature’s website, this committee considers “matters relating to all transportation companies and corporations subject to the regulation of the Public Utility Commission; all air and surface transportation; the registration, regulation, and licensing of transportation operations and users; the construction and maintenance of thoroughfares; and the impact of the transportation sector on air pollution and climate change.”
Coffey served on the Corrections and Institutions Committee in the last two bienniums and told The Commons that, given all the changes in the House with so many new members this session, her experience of serving on a “money committee” was a factor in being chosen to chair the Transportation Committee.
“Corrections and Institutions touched on every part of the state budget except the transportation budget,” she said. “Transportation is an $800 million budget by itself, so there are a lot of similarities with what I did on my old committee.”
With transportation being the chief source of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change in Vermont, Coffey said that dealing with the need to reduce the state’s carbon emissions will be a big part of her new committee’s work.
“It’s going to be challenging, but there are some great opportunities to create change,” she said. “We hope we can build on the work that has already been done.”
In addition to announcing who will be chairing the chamber’s committees, Krowinski also unveiled changes to how the committees are structured and what their jurisdictions will be.
Military affairs have been moved from the General and Housing Committee to join Government Operations. And the Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, which has typically handled major environmental policies, has been dissolved.
Instead, the former Energy and Technology Committee will expand to include “conservation and development, climate change mitigation, energy, broadband, land resources, air, water, and wildlife, and other similar policies,” according to the House resolution describing the change.
The new committee, chaired by Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, is called the House Committee on Environment and Energy. Sheldon previously chaired Natural Resources.
On the energy side, the new committee plans to take up a bill that would update the Renewable Energy Standard to move the state closer to relying entirely on renewable energy by 2030.
Lawmakers also will push forward on an “Affordable Heating Act” — called the clean heat standard last biennium — that would aim to reduce the amount of fossil fuels in Vermont’s heating and cooling sector.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, who will serve as vice-chair of the new Environment and Energy Committee, expressed concerns about the group’s vast jurisdiction. She cited the widespread power outages that occurred in the winter storm last month and said lawmakers have plenty of work to do to promote resilience and plan for climate change.
“Large change of any kind, good or bad, causes stress,” Sibilia told VTDigger. “I think there’s probably 150 opinions about how it should have been done. I don’t think that this is the way that I would have structured it.”
“However, I’m not speaker, and I’m not looking to be speaker,” she said. “I appreciate that this was a tough balancing act.”
Sibilia said she’s looking forward to working with the new committee, and hopes that the “very big issues” in its jurisdiction will progress.
Other House committee assignments
• Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, returns to the Appropriations Committee, which considers matters relating to appropriating money from the state treasury. It and the Ways and Means committee are widely considered the two most important House committees.
• Leslie Goldman, D-Bellows Falls, also returns to the Committee on Health Care.
• Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry, will serve on the Committee on Human Services.
• Tristan Roberts, D-Halifax, and Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster will both serve on the Corrections and Institutions Committee, which considers matters relating to the Department of Corrections, public buildings, and state lands and property.
• Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, will serve on the Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee, which considers matters relating to the organization, oversight, and conduct of state government.
Three of the Vermont Senate’s standing committees have new chairs this year, according to a roster released on June 5 by Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden.
Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden Southeast, will lead the Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs; Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, will lead the Government Operations Committee; and Russ Ingalls, R-Essex, will lead the Institutions Committee.
Notably, six first-term senators were appointed vice-chairs of committees, including Windham County’s two Democratic senators.
Wendy Harrison of Brattleboro was named vice-chair of the Institutions Committee, which has jurisdiction over matters relating to public buildings, lands in which the state has an interest, and the Department of Corrections. She will also serve on the Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.
Harrison said last month she was interested in serving on the Government Operations and the Transportation committees.
Nader Hashim of Dummerston was named vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over matters relating to judicial and legal affairs and motor vehicle and homeowner liability insurance. Hashim will also serve on the Education Committee.
Both assignments were high on Hashim’s wish list heading into this session, as he expressed interest in these assignments in remarks he made last month at a constituent gathering in Brattleboro.
While the Speaker of the House makes that chamber’s committee assignments, Senate committee assignments are made by the Committee on Committees, a three-member panel comprised this biennium of Baruth, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, and Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle.