MONTPELIER – The two Orleans/Essex County district senate seats are safe for the moment, according to Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Orleans/Essex), one of the members of the special senate committee charged with coming up with a recommendation for reapportioning Vermont senate districts. The draft plan has yet to be adopted by both chambers and requires the governor's signature to become law.
Reapportionment is required to maintain the constitutional balance of "one man, one vote" in the legislature based on the U.S. Census, which occurs every 10 years.
Although Vermonters tend to refer to their senators as elected from counties, they are actually elected from districts, some of which cross county lines.
Under the current proposal, Senators Vince Illuzzi and Bobby Starr would represent a district stretching from Concord, in southern Essex County, to the Canadian boundary, to Berkshire, down to Wolcott, and back up again, skirting Caledonia County. The district would include over 40 towns in at least four counties: Essex, Orleans, Lamoille and Franklin.
The Legislative Reapportionment Board started the process last year after the federal government released the results of the 2010 U.S. Census. The Legislative Reapportionment Board came back with numerous recommendations that included reducing the number of senators in the Orleans/Essex district from two to one. The plan would have reduced the number of towns in the district by half and put Essex County in with Caledonia County.
“That board of non-legislators proposed creating a Caledonia/Essex Senate District and an Orleans Senate District,” Illuzzi said. “One member for the Orleans District and two for the Caledonia/Essex.”
Illuzzi said the plan resulted from the goal of "breaking the lock grip that Democrats have on the Chittenden Senate District, with Burlington as the largest town in that county." He added, "It had the unintended consequence of breaking up the rest of the state because a change on one part of the state has a ripple effect on other parts of the state."
“The City of Burlington has an overwhelming influence in the election of six senators in Chittenden County,” said Illuzzi.
He said Burlington is home to the Progressive Party and a large number of Democrats. “Because Burlington has such a large population, it prevents other towns from electing Republican, Progressive or Independent senators.”
The board's way of giving other parties a chance to elect their own members was to break up Chittenden County's six member district into three, two-member districts.
The plan was rejected by the special Senate Committee on Reapportionment.
Instead, the seven-member committee, on which Illuzzi serve,s decided to develop a "least disruptive plan" by moving the least number of towns amongst Senate districts to match population changes.
“In our area, we propose to add the town of Berkshire to the district as a way to keep two senators in the Essex/Orleans District and two senators in the Caledonia/Orange District,” Illuzzi said. “The Northeast Kingdom collectively will continue to have four senators. This plan is better for the Northeast Kingdom as a whole. It keeps four senators in the most rural part of the state and prevents Chittenden County from swallowing up control of the Vermont Senate."
Illuzzi said some Chittenden County Democrats want to add a seventh seat to the Chittenden Senate District. Coupled with Colchester, which is part of the Grand Isle Senate District, the county would effectively have eight out of 30 senators. "Such a plan would disenfranchise the interests of more rural areas."
On the other hand, Illuzzi said, some Republicans and Progressives want to break up the one six-member district. "It is the largest senate district in the United States of America and gives overwhelming influence to the City of Burlington."
Under the Senate committee's plan, the number of seats in the Chittenden District will remain the same. In order to do so, the district would shed two towns - Charlotte and Bolton. Charlotte would be placed in the Addison County District and Bolton would be placed in the Washington County District.
Vermonters will have an opportunity to provide input at two different public hearings to be held on Feb. 8 and Feb. 16, at the State House, Room 10, from 4:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. Following those two hearings, the committee will make its recommendation to the full 30-member Senate.
The proposal, which is contained in and treated like any other piece of legislation, will then go the House and, if approved there, then go to Gov. Peter Shumlin for his signature.
Illuzzi said the special Senate committee, made up of four Democrats and three Republicans, is working together. “The committee is working very constructively,” he said. “Our goal is to be fair to every region of the state, and no one on the committee is trying to disenfranchise any other region of the state.”