Rep. Patti Lewis, R-Berlin, far left, and Rep. Francis “Topper” McFaun, R-Barre, take the oath of office Wednesday. For more photos of the day, see the E section at www.timesargus.com.
MONTPELIER — As Vermont lawmakers gathered Wednesday for their 2013 session, hundreds of activists converged on the Statehouse, demanding the state “put people first” and set budget and policies friendly to labor, children, people with disabilities, and the poor.
But leaders of the House and the Senate, where Democrats are the majority, said they face another tough budget year and agree with Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin that they don’t want to raise broad-based taxes, such as income and sales taxes.
“We still face a significant fiscal crisis. It’s not over by any means,” said Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, the Senate president pro tem.
His comment came in an interview after members of the House and Senate were sworn in and heard their leaders outline plans for the coming session.
With session-opening ceremonies continuing today, top state officials are to be sworn in, including the governor and the attorney general. Also, Shumlin will give his second inaugural address.
Members of Put People First, a coalition of labor and human rights groups, packed a Statehouse hearing room Wednesday.
“For too long, we have been divided from one another by attempts to make us compete for our rights,” the coalition said in a statement. “This year, we have come together with all who struggle in this system that denies our human rights and destroys our planet.”
But changes advocates want may not be in the immediate offing, given the sluggish economic recovery and revenues coming in at a slower clip than was forecast in July, the beginning of the current fiscal year. Also, in preparing a state budget for the 2014 fiscal year that begins July 1, 2013, lawmakers face a projection of needs outstripping revenues by $50 million to $70 million.
Advocates called for environmental action, demanding that Vermont clean up its rivers and lakes.
House Speaker Shap Smith said he wanted the environment to be a priority, but said the focus should be on studying climate change and what the state could do to address the problem. He called for special sessions of two House committees — Commerce and Natural Resources and Energy — to hear from ski areas, stores that depend on snowmobile traffic and other businesses hurt by last winter’s lack of snow.
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