By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, will be wielding greater influence in the Vermont Legislature when the new term opens in January. Ayer, who this month won a third term in the upper house of the Legislature, was unanimously elected majority whip of the state Senate during a Democratic caucus in Montpelier on Monday.
“I see this as a lot more work, but also a great learning experience,” said Ayer, who along with Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, ran unopposed for re-election on Nov. 7.
“I expect to be involved in lots of different kinds of legislation,” she added.
As majority whip — also referred to as “assistant majority leader” — Ayer’s responsibilities will include:
• Becoming particularly well versed on legislation important to Senate Democrats, who will enjoy a 23-7 majority, come January.
• “Counting noses,” as she put it, to determine whether there are enough votes to get bills passed. If there are not, Ayer will be one of those seeking to lobby her peers to pass — or reject — legislation.
• Bringing new Senate Democrats up to speed on how to navigate the Statehouse, literally and politically.
• Strategizing on legislative priorities with other key Senate Democrats, including new President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin of Windham County and Majority Leader John Campbell of Windsor County.
“I do expect to have more influence,” Ayer said. “I expect to be at the table, being able to contribute more.”
Still, she stressed her new duties won’t take her away from her primary responsibilities as a lawmaker. Ayer will continue to serve on the Senate Finance and Natural Resources & Energy committees. Those two panels figure to play pivotal roles in shaping any education finance reform and renewable energy bills that are taken up during the next biennium.
Ayer also cited ongoing health care reform and development of on-site septic regulations as other issues the Democrat-controlled Senate is likely to tackle during the next two years.
While he is not joining Ayer in the Senate leadership ranks, Giard expects to be very busy during what will be his sophomore term in Montpelier. Giard, a retired farmer, expects to be reassigned to an Agriculture Committee that Senate brass promises will be elevated in stature.
The Senate Agriculture Committee has, in recent history, been considered an extra assignment (on top of two other standing committee assignments) for lawmakers with an interest in farm issues. The panel has been meeting three mornings each week in borrowed space, beginning at 8 a.m., until the regular standing committees’ work begins at 10 a.m.
Giard said that beginning in January, the Senate Agriculture Committee will enjoy the same status as other standing committees, with its own designated room in the Statehouse.
The move comes in recognition of the weighty issues facing the state’s agricultural community. Farmers have spent much of 2006 struggling with low milk prices and wet weather that has stunted most feed crops.
“We’re now on an even keel with everybody else,” Giard said of the ag committee’s newfound importance in Montpelier. “We are no longer the ‘stepchild.’”
Giard anticipates the ag committee will focus on such topics as milk pricing; how the state could better spend its $3.9 million annual dairy promotions budget; how dairy co-ops could do a better job representing farmers’ interests; and how farmers could be held harmless from further stop and hauling charges.
“I think this is going to be one of the most exciting sessions for agriculture,” Giard said.