(Host) The end of the 2005 Legislature also marks the close of Democrat Gaye Symington’s first session as speaker of the House. The Jericho Representative is the first woman to hold the post in 50 years. She’s brought a more relaxed style to the speaker’s podium. But she’s also remained focused on the agenda that her party brought to Montpelier in January.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) As she tries to keep the 150 members of the House in line during a roll call vote, Speaker Gaye Symington sometimes sounds like an exasperated parent dealing with a pack of teenagers.
(Symington) “When you give your vote, speak loudly and clearly. And stay seated! I think Walter used to say: Sit down, shut up, and let’s get going.”
(Dillon) Symington was elected speaker in January, when the Democrats regained the majority. From the beginning, she put health care, rural economic development and energy issues at the top of her legislative agenda.
As she closed the session on Saturday, Symington said lawmakers made progress on these issues.
(Symington) “We’ve also shown ourselves able to work with respect through difficult issues where we really truly disagree.”
(Dillon) But Symington was also in a showdown with Republican Governor Jim Douglas over health care legislation.
Douglas has castigated Democrats for endorsing a payroll tax that he says will hurt the economy. The governor has made skillful use of press conferences to paint the Democrats as anti-business.
Symington says her goal is to achieve universal coverage, despite the political obstacles.
(Symington) “I feel we’ve walked into this building intent on getting good work done for the people of this state. I don’t have a staff. I don’t have a public relations machine behind me. I don’t have a staff – that sort of the spin doctor machinery. Our job is to do good work.
(Dillon) The House Speaker controls the committee assignments, and has considerable power to control debate. Republicans were generally pleased with the make up of committees, although they don’t feel they got enough input on a special Health Care Committee that shaped this year’s legislation.
Rutland Town Representative David Sunderland is assistant minority leader.
(Sunderland) “On a political stance anyway, I’ll certainly look back on this session as really a year of missed opportunities. Specifically in terms of health care, we really could have taken some action that we all agreed on and moved forward. But instead, what I fear is we’re not going to get anything.
(Dillon) Lyndon Republican Cola Hudson has served in the House since 1973. He’s worked under seven speakers, including Symington.
He says Symington has been fair to the minority overall. But he does miss the formality and protocol of some other leaders of the House.
(Hudson) “This speaker has been has been a little bit on the casual side, I think. I like to see a little more structure than I’ve seen in her. But I’m not being terribly critical by that statement.”
(Dillon) Before she became speaker, Symington was viewed as a policy wonk, particularly on education tax issues. The world of political combat was less familiar to her. But most who’ve seen her in the Legislature says she a quick study and is catching up fast.
Just before she brought the gavel down to close the session, Symington thanked everyone she worked with, including the cafeteria staff, the pages, and the Statehouse custodians.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.