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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Democrats Elect Leaders, Ponder Challenges

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Peter Hirschfeld
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VPR
House Democrats rise to applaud Morristown Rep. Shap Smith, who was guaranteed a fourth term Saturday as Speaker of the House.

House Democrats convened for their annual December caucus Saturday. And party leaders say the Legislature will face some tough choices next year.

House and Senate Democrats saw their numbers diminished in the November election. And while Peter Shumlin appears to have clawed out a victory in the race for governor, the party has shown its first signs of vulnerability since sweeping to power in recent years.

Audio from this story will be posted at approximately 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 16. 

But Democrats still wield overwhelming control in the Legislature. And on Saturday, they tapped Morristown Rep. Shap Smith for a fourth-term as House Speaker.

Smith told members of his caucus that the Legislature faces difficult work ahead as it juggles a $100 million budget shortfall, voter anger over rising property taxes and a looming proposal from the governor to institute a single-payer health care system.

"We need to recognize that people are feeling a pinch, and we've got to figure out to help them make their lives better. But it's a point of building on what we have, not tearing everything down that we have done." - Rep. Shap Smith

“We need to recognize that people are feeling a pinch, and we’ve got to figure out to help them make their lives better,” Smith told his Democratic colleagues Saturday. “But it’s a point of building on what we have, not tearing everything down that we have done.”

Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas won an uncontested election for House Majority Leader – she had earlier faced competition from Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram, who dropped out of that race last week. Copeland-Hanzas said work remains to repair the economic damage done to working Vermonters over the past decade.

Senate Health and Welfare chairwoman Sen. Claire Ayer is backing a plan to allow Vermont to purchase some prescription drugs from Canada at much lower costs
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
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VPR File
Addison Sen. Claire Ayer won another term as assistant majority leader.

“So we know that a rising tide floats all boats. But I think we as Democrats are keenly aware that part of our job is to throw a lifeline to the Vermonters that have been swept overboard in our Great Recession,” she said.

Lawmakers have already begun pondering how to solve a $100 million budget shortfall, about one-third of which is the result of growing Medicaid expenses. But they’ll also wrestle over whether, and how, to overhaul an education financing system that some critics blame for rising property tax rates.

Gov. Peter Shumlin later this month will unveil a proposal that aims to institute a publicly funded health care system, one that would do away with private premiums while raising about $2 billion in new taxes to pay for universal coverage.

Shumlin addressed House Democrats during their lunch hour Saturday, but made no mention of the his signature. Shumlin did however caution that the budget he’ll propose next month will be more austere than many Democrats might want to see.

"All I can tell you is I'm sitting up there with my team right now trying to bring a budget to you, and it's the toughest one we've had to try to do yet." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

“All I can tell you is I’m sitting up there with my team right now trying to bring a budget to you, and it’s the toughest one we’ve had to try to do yet,” Shumlin said.

The budget woes reflect a nationwide trend, and stem from slower-than-expected growth in state revenue streams.

“You can’t have a 5 percent spending rate and a 3 percent growth rate and expect to survive,” Shumlin said.

And while Shumlin hasn’t discounted the prospect of tax increases to help fill the budget gap, he has said he’ll look to cut first, and raise revenues only as a last resort.

Senate Democrats also held their caucus Saturday, where they elected Windsor Sen. John Campbell to another term as president pro tem. Chittenden Sen. Phillip Baruth was reelected Senate Majority Leader, and Addison Sen. Claire Ayer won another term as assistant majority leader.

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