2008 legislative session opens in Montpelier

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(Host) Lawmakers returned to Montpelier today to kick off the 2008 session.

Legislative leaders say health care, energy, and property tax relief are among the top issues they want to tackle this year.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

Sound of gavel, and Symington:

"The House will please come to order."

(Kinzel) Lawmakers got right down to work on the first day of the session. Hundreds of bills remain from last year and most House and Senate committees began the process of identifying their priorities for the coming months.

Legislative leaders vowed to work on many of the issues that failed to win final approval last year. These include legislation to expand the state’s energy efficiency programs, efforts to make health care more affordable, and several proposals to reduce property tax burdens.

At the end of the 2007 session, the relationship between Democratic leaders and Republican governor Jim Douglas was strained after Douglas vetoed two top Democratic priorities.

Senate president Peter Shumlin says he’s optimistic that things will be different this year:

(Shumlin) "I think that Vermonters are scared, I think they’re feeling a lot of pain, I think gas prices and oil prices are killing them and I think there’s a real need for the Legislature and the governor to work together to reduce Vermont’s dependence on oil, to lower their bills, to put money in their pockets and to move forward on health care. And I think that anyone who stands in the way on progress on these issues is going to be punished at the polls in November."

House Republicans will start the session with a new leader. Minority leader Steve Adams underwent heart surgery on Monday, and as a result, GOP whip Patti Komline will run the GOP caucus for the foreseeable future. Komline says Adams is doing well:

(Komline) "It’s all good news so far, it’s great…it’s a little overwhelming at the moment but I think I’ll catch my breath and figure out where we are, and we know where we’re going."

Komline says the top short term priority for the GOP is to find some additional resources for heating assistance programs:

(Komline)"Last year in the first few weeks of the session as you remember it was the dairy farmers and the dairy farmers were really struggling and we worked together in a bipartisan way to figure out how to offer some assistance. We’re just asking the Legislature to focus on this on the near term."

Progressive House leader Chris Pearson says his caucus wants to strengthen the economic security of working Vermont families during the 2008 session:

(Pearson)"Most Vermonters are not debating what kind of new car they can buy this year or where they’re going on vacation. They are seriously trying to pay their heating bill, pay for prescription drugs… there are very, very serious needs that families are struggling to afford."

The tri partisan atmosphere at the Statehouse could be tested early in the session. That’s because Democratic leaders plan to quickly pass a new campaign finance reform bill.

It’s one of the bills that the Governor vetoed last session. Democrats say they’re planning to make only small changes to the legislation and that could set up a major confrontation with Douglas in the next two weeks.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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