Debate Continues on Transportation Bill and Champion

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(Host) As the weekend began, the Legislature was deadlocked on a number of issues that have polarized lawmakers for months. The House and Senate are divided on a key transportation bill and over legislation that would allow logging on state land in the Northeast Kingdom.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The Champion lands debate that divided this Legislature from the first days in January was still unresolved as the clock wound down to adjournment. At issue is how the state will manage its portion of the Northeast Kingdom timber land.

The House objects to a conservation reserve that would be created on 12,500 acres. Logging is not allowed on this land. The Republican controlled House wants to permit logging. And the House also wants to extend the leases of some 75 private campowners in the region. The Senate rejected those provisions.

Brandon Republican Bob Wood chairs the House Institutions Committee and is negotiating with the Senate on the issue:

(Wood) “If there is a chance for compromise we will try to find it. ¿ But we as a conference committee can’t sell the House down the river when they’ve spoke so strongly. We’re trying to defend what they asked for.”

(Dillon) Wood complains that the Senate has refused to negotiate:

(Wood) “We made a proposal to the Senate two days ago ¿ in the conference committee ¿ and we’ve not had a response back from them to what we offered at that time. They’ve not gotten back to us.”

(Dillon) But the lead Senate negotiator, Windsor Senator Dick McCormack, says it’s the House side that’s won’t deal:

(McCormack) “The most recent offer of language came from the Senate. The House rejected that language so ¿ the ball is in their court to come up with a counter proposal and they’ve fallen strangely silent. And it’s very frustrating.”

(Dillon) The same frustration is evident in other issues that divide the House and Senate. The House wants to limit funding for the Champlain flyer commuter train in Chittenden County. The Senate wants the state to pay in full for the train. That’s one of several points that remain unresolved in the House-Senate conference committee that’s working on the transportation bill.

Shelburne Republican George Schiavone says he’s waiting to hear back from his counterparts in the Senate:

(Schiavone) “We haven’t met in two days and I’m very disappointed in that. I’ve left notes with the Senate chairman asking, when are we going to meet or if we’re ever going to meet again. I get no response. And I think it’s just a crime that we’ve gone two days. It’s kind of like the Senate is saying it’s our way or the highway.”

(Dillon) Both the Champion land issue and the commuter rail debate are tied to legislation that involve lots of state money for local projects. The transportation bill authorizes new road and bridges projects. And the House amendment on the Champion lands is part of the capital bill ¿ legislation that finances public construction projects around the state. So members in both the House and the Senate had plenty of motivation to strike a deal before they go home.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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