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F-35 Critics Offer Amendments To Adjutant General Bill

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VPR/Kirk Carapezza
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A bill that would change how Vermont elects its top military leader is drawing sprawling amendments designed to delay – at the state level – the federal proposal to base F-35 fighter jets in South Burlington. Critics of the Air Force’s plan have proposed sweeping revisions to a bill that would shift how the Legislature appoints the Vermont National Guard’s Adjutant General.

Right now, Vermont and South Carolina are the only two states whose lawmakers elect their adjutant general. But the bill before the Vermont House this week would require that a panel make that appointment, instead of the Legislature.

“It gets the issue of electing the adjutant general back on track,” Adjutant General Steven Cray said on Tuesday.

At the post for just six weeks, Cray sat at ease in his office inside the barbed wire at Camp Johnson in Colchester. He has decorated the place with framed photos of fighter jets flying over foliage and Lake Champlain.

“Mostly F-16s,” Cray pointed out. “There is a model of the F-35, but that’s all I have.”

That’s all because the Air Force hasn’t made its decision public, yet. For now, the underlying bill would add certain criteria so that candidates for adjutant general are actually qualified to lead the 4,000 members of the Guard and oversee its fleet of F-16s, which are expected to be phased out in 2020. Cray supports the bill because he says experience is important.

“What rank you hold makes a difference of where you sit and what access you have to meetings and so it’s very important for the Vermont National Guard to have a federally recognized general officer that can do that type of work both here in the state and at the national level,” Cray explained.

But Rep. George Cross, D-Winooski, and other lawmakers want the bill to do more. They’ve put forth language that would call for a public hearing and comprehensive, independent study before a final decision is made on basing the F-35s in Vermont.

Cross says the Air Force should skip Vermont in the first round of basing decisions until more information is known about the noise impacts of the F-35 on residential homes around the airport.

“I believe that the amendments that I proposed are most apropos and germane to the underlying bill,” Cross said. “The citizens of Vermont have not been given complete information about the impact of this.”

The action in Montpelier comes as Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the biggest supporters of the F-35 program, is responding to reports that Vermont has already gotten preliminary approval to base the jets, months before any official announcement from the Air Force is made public.

A recent Boston Globe report quotes an anonymous Pentagon source who says Senator Leahy’s influence over the National Guard Caucus has undermined the democratic process.

Leahy has repeatedly denied that charge, and the Air Force says any suggestion that Burlington International Airport has already been selected because of the senator’s authority in Washington is incorrect.

“I’m completely unaware of what the source is talking about,” said Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the Air Force. She says the Air Force expects to have a better idea of the timing of its decision soon.

"We are still collecting and analyzing data – including noise data – and that information is all going to be wrapped up into the Environmental Impact Statement,” Stefanek explained in a phone interview Monday.

Stefanek says Vermont remains the preferred location, pending the final environmental impact statement which will include 2010 census data.

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