TOWNSHEND—Senator Peter Galbraith reads his 2010 campaign brochure. He checks over his list of campaign promises, assessing which ones he met in his first term.
Settled on an overstuffed couch in his Townshend home, the former ambassador and author has swapped his customary suit and tie for shorts, a button-down shirt, and bright blue Crocs.
In 2010, Galbraith promised to expand health care, attract investment and jobs to Windham County, advance a green-energy future, keep Vermont special by protecting its open spaces and making farming economically viable, extend cell coverage and broadband Internet throughout the county, and make Windham County’s needs a priority in Montpelier.
Galbraith nods at his first-term accomplishments. He voted in favor of the state’s health-care reform and, on the economic front, he helped orchestrate two Senate Economic Development Housing and General Affairs Committee (SEDHGA) hearings in the county.
Galbraith quickly adds that Windham County was the only county with field hearings last session. The SEDHGA hearings helped focus attention on the county. The committee’s attention helped funnel money to the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) for two consecutive years.
Committee Chair Senator Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, and Galbraith contributed to legislation to assist Vermont’s mobile home parks, inspired by the lawmakers’ visits to TriPark in Brattleboro.
Galbraith also introduced a successful bill to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking,” in Vermont. He developed a compromise for the clean-energy bill that had stalled in committee. According to Galbraith, the compromise “enabled Vermont to go forward with small-scale clean-energy projects.”
Galbraith, who jokes about standing on a rock in his backyard for a cell signal, advocated for expanded broadband and cell coverage in the county.
In 2011 he co-sponsored the telecommunications act that grew out of the SEDHGA committee. He said the bill served as one step in the state’s broader path toward statewide cell coverage.
“Retire Vermont Yankee as scheduled in 2012,” he reads on the brochure.
“Well, you can’t win them all,” he said.
Galbraith is running against fellow Democrats, incumbent Senator Jeannette White of Putney and challenger Mary Cain of Brattleboro, for one of two Senate seats in the Aug. 28 primary.
Skills and floor debates
Galbraith describes himself as “a fighter,” willing to stand to protect Vermont, its sense of community, and strive for fairness in the government and economy.
“I believe we ought to be taking care of each other,” he said, adding that he likes to take a “pragmatic” approach when finding solutions to policy questions.
Galbraith complimented the work of his colleagues on the Windham County delegation, who he feels share a deep commitment to Vermonters. Although he came to the group with a different set of experiences, he believes that his skills fit with those of other Windham County lawmakers.
When asked what were his weaknesses as a Senator? Galbraith laughed, responding, “I work too hard.”
When that response didn’t fly, he nodded and admitted that he can be impatient with the political process.
After 24 years in federal government, Galbraith said he’s “mindful” of inefficiencies in Montpelier.
Galbraith pointed to the Senate and House not working on the same bills simultaneously, and a failure of Senate leadership to schedule important bills earlier in the session. In his opinion, a better schedule could shorten the legislative session by two months.
The amount of committee work also irks him. According to Galbraith, the Senate routinely deferred to committees, rather than opening an issue to debate on the floor.
Decisions made during a floor debate are made by the entire Senate, he said. In contrast, committee decisions depend on five to seven committee members.
Galbraith said he was more effective when he operated on the Senate floor than in committee. He plans to continue bringing big issues to the floor for debate.
The voters elected their Senators and are entitled to a record of the representatives’ voting record. In contrast with Senate activity on the floor, which is streamed on the Internet and recorded, unless the public is physically in the committee room, much of the record is lost. A lot of discussions in committee happen among people without any special expertise with only lobbyists in the room, he said.
Although the meetings are taped, Galbraith considers those records essentially “inaccessible” to the general public.
“On the whole, the leadership would prefer to not debate the big issues,” he said adding, “There’s a little too much of the herd mentality [in Montpelier].”
‘There’s more to do’
Galbraith said he’s looking toward a second term.
“At this stage of my life, I’m not looking for a higher office,” he said. “I’m very proud of my public service career. There’s more to do.”
Galbraith spent 24 years as a diplomat before returning full time to Vermont.
He still laments the Legislature’s vote against studying a proposed state purchase of the VELCO transmission lines. Galbraith, Illuzzi, and Timothy Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, proposed the amendment, calling on the state to set aside $250,000 for the study.
Seven Days reported Feb. 10 that Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell had “called the idea crazy” and “called Illuzzi into a closed-door meeting with the chairs of the Senate Finance and Appropriations committees to cut a deal to avoid the floor amendment.” Galbraith and Ashe were not invited.
Galbraith interprets the legislature’s resistance to the idea as pressure from special interests.
According to Galbraith, the electricity transmission network comes with a 14 percent rate of return. The state could have borrowed the money to purchase the network at 3 percent.
“I think that is something we are going to regret, like we regret not buying the Connecticut River dams,” he said.
He also expresses disappointment about the House’s defeat of his amendment aimed at returning $21 million to Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) ratepayers as a condition of the company’s merger with Green Mountain Power. The amendment required electric utilities that have received a loan from the ratepayers to repay the loan.
The Senate passed the amendment.
In Galbraith’s opinion, the electric utilities received a “sweetheart deal,” while the CVPS customers “were ripped off.”
He concedes work in the legislature sometimes proved frustrating. “All legislatures are.”
That’s because the Montpelier establishment doesn’t like change, he said.
“I make no apologies. Yes, I made people uncomfortable,” he said of his direct nature that sometimes teetered into confrontational.
Next session, Galbraith anticipates health-care reform to top the list of issues.
“[Vermont] has the potential to change the way health care is done in the U.S.,” he said.
But, the state must finance Green Mountain Care. The GMC board will present its plan for the health-care system to the Legislature by early 2013.
Galbraith plans to “take an active role” in the process. He hopes the state will develop a system that maximizes federal funding. He agrees with Dr. William Hsiao’s recommendation that the state enact a payroll tax to help pay for the new health-care system.
According to Galbraith, businesses could write off this tax as a business expense.
Galbraith cites environmental issues as a passion. Commercial wind projects top his list of undesirables.
Vermont’s “extraordinary beauty” stems from its natural environment and its sense of community, he said, adding that “the idea of industrial wind [projects] on ridge lines when it’s opposed by the local community is wrong.”
According to Galbraith, wind power in Vermont is intermittent, yet requires damaging fragile ecosystems and disrupting communities.
“None of that is compensated,” he said.
He plans to co-sponsor a bill requiring commercial wind projects to receive a thumbs-up from all the affected towns.
“If local communities want it, fine,” he said. “But if they don’t, I don’t think it should be rammed down their throats.”
Galbraith has not dropped the torch he carried last session for campaign finance.
“It is a disgrace that Vermont allows direct contributions to candidates when they’ve been banned under federal law since 1907,” he said.
House and Senate races in Vermont cost very little compared to other races. Donations totaling $100,000 to various candidates are “peanuts” to most corporations, but have a “huge impact” in the state, he said.
To him, the irony of the Legislature voting in this year against the Citizens United decision is that while it’s voting one way, candidates simultaneously say, “But don’t take away my corporate check.”
Galbraith self-financed his 2010 campaign. He does not apologize for having the deep-enough pockets from which to pay his own way.
“I was elected by the people of Windham County, and I wasn’t elected with an asterisk,” he said.