The Year in Review: 2006 – Part 5, Mixed Bag

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(Host) All this week, VPR has been looking at the past year in a series of special reports.

In 2006, Vermont was full of interesting stories about people and the places.

Today in our review, Steve Delaney recalls some of those people and places from the Olympics to the airports to the gas pump.

(Delaney) In the Winter Olympics Vermonter Hannah Teeter won a gold medal in half-pipe snowboarding. Teammate and fellow Vermonter Lindsey Jacobelli was leading another event when she fell near the finish line while doing an extra stunt, and had to settle for silver.

The first casualty of the year was not a person but an airline. Brian Searles runs the Burlington airport.

(Searles) “The ironic thing about this for Independence Air is that they were doing a great job in terms of service, and that they were also filling planes. But yet, they couldn’t make it. And we think that somebody else can. So we’re hopeful that somebody will pick up that business.”

(Delaney) By year’s end other airlines had picked up the Washington-bound traffic.

Police in Bellows Falls were offered a Federal grant to install surveillance cameras around the village. But the Village Trustees thought that smacked of Big Brother government. Louise Light was among the NO votes.

(Light) “I kept asking myself, why is the federal government eager to give our small town of thirty five to thirty six hundred people, a hundred thousand dollars to mount twelve to fifteen surveillance cameras? It doesn’t make sense. And when we saw this play out in the newspapers it was clear to me that this could be part of a much bigger network of cameras all over this country. And I protest.”

(Delaney) That federal grant came through just as allegations of domestic spying were making national headlines.

Town Meeting Day always produces notable decisions. This year Sunderland defeated another ballot article to close its elementary school, enrollment sixty and shrinking. Eric Marchese was re-elected to the school board on a keep it open platform.

(Marchese) “I have two children in the school and I feel they’re getting a quality education. I don’t feel they’re missing out on anything. I think it’s a great place for them to be. We’re a pretty small town, but we don’t really have a town center, and the only thing that really connects people is the school.”

(Delaney) And at the other end of the state, Alburgh voted to take back its H . That last letter had been dropped by the U.S. Post office more than a hundred years ago. Selectman Paul Hanson led the effort to put the “H” back in Alburgh.

(Hansen) “There are some of us that felt that we were a little slighted by the government stepping in and changing our name, no different than if the government changed the spelling of your personal name. Why not have the name of our town as it was originally chartered?

(Delaney) Now, officially, it’s Alburgh, and it ends with an H.

In the middle of the election season Governor Douglas and the Congressional delegation got into a rare public spat over how much wilderness there ought to be in the Green Mountain National Forest.

The delegation got a bill through the Senate unanimously, that designated twice as much land for wilderness as the Governor thought there should be. Bob Kinzel picks up the story.

(Kinzel) Following the Senate’s passage of the bill, Douglas urged the Republican leadership of the House Resources committee to scale back the amount of land being designated as wilderness.

Leahy says Douglas’s actions could undermine the future of the legislation.

(Leahy) “Our surveys show that a majority of Vermonters want it and to suddenly say to the Republican leadership in the House we want you to stop this bill that was passed and approved by all Republicans and Democrats in the Senate is unfortunate I’d rather go with what is Vermont’s best interest.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says he was stunned by Douglas’s letter to the House committee.

Douglas is defending his actions. He bristled at the suggestion that his involvement is a last minute effort to defeat the bill.

(Douglas) “The senator and his staff indicated to me several weeks ago that there was room for a compromise, room for a middle ground. But they choose not to negotiate they just passed a bill anyway.”

(Delaney) Douglas did manage to get the House to do nothing on the wilderness bill before its election break.

But when Congress came back for its post-election lame duck session, one of its first acts was to pass the wilderness bill. The middle ground Douglas wanted turned out to be the designation of 42,000 wilderness acres rather than the 48,000 the Senate had approved.

There was a homecoming of sorts in May when State Senator Ed Flanagan walked into the Senate chamber, haltingly, after a near-fatal car accident the previous winter. He used the moment to plea for broader health insurance coverage for Vermonters.

(Flanagan) “I can’t imagine where I’d be without the sustained, intensive rehab therapy that my insurance makes possible. I can’t imagine how working Vermont families could stay afloat after an uninsured wage earner sustains a serious injury or illness. I salute the efforts of this body to meet this challenge.”

(Delaney) Late in the legislative session, optimistic words began to float around the Statehouse about a compromise on health care, an issue so contentious that the Governor vetoed the bill lawmakers had passed the year before.

John Tracy headed the House committee working on the problem.

(Tracy) “his is economically the right thing to do, financially the right thing to do, healthcare wise the right thing to do and morally the right thing to do. And I think the average Vermonter said, you know what? They went the extra mile to work with the administration. They really did.’ We’ve made a decision. We’ve made a choice. And I think it’s time for the Governor to make a choice.”

(Delaney) The administration balked at some of the numerical assumptions in the Legislature’s plan, but the door was clearly open to a solution. Administration Secretary Mike Smith.

(Smith) “The governor wants a bill. I think we have the framework to make this happen. And I’ve never said that before. I think we have the framework to make this happen.”

(Delaney) The compromise that emerged became the state’s Catamount Health Plan, and it made coverage available to about a third of the sixty thousand Vermonters who were without it. Democrats called it a good start toward universal coverage.

Ironically, Senator Ed Flanagan, the man whose appeal helped move the health care issue,was in another accident early in December,when his car rolled over on an I-89 entry ramp. This time, he was not badly hurt.

Late in November Cassandra Bush of Woodbury sat down in the lobby of Burlington’s airport, and nursed her baby. She and dozens of other women were protesting the removal from a plane of nursing mother Emily Gillette, in Burlington, in October.

(Brush) “It’s a shame that our whole society is sexualized that something that is so normal is treated like a sexual bad thing to do in public.”

(Delaney) There were similar rallies in eighteen other airports across the country.

Freedom Airlines, which operated the regional flight from which the family was expelled, said it apologized to them and disciplined the flight attendant.

On the good news/bad news scale the good news was that for a while, gasoline prices dropped under two dollars a gallon. The bad news was that for a while they were over three dollars a gallon.

For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney.

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