DANVILLE — Sisters, Sen. Jane Kitchel and Rep. Kitty Toll, are making history this legislative term by each being named to chair their branch of the state government’s appropriations committees.
There have been other sibling legislators, and familial connections at the Vermont Statehouse, they point out, including when Gov. Madeline Kunin’s brother, then Sen. Edgar May, chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee under his sister’s leadership of the state.
But to their knowledge, they said, this is the first time two members of the same family have chaired the House and Senate committees where the money decisions are made.
The committee announcements were made official at the General Assembly on Friday.
Some at the capital have questioned having two sisters from the same town serve as chairs of the influential committees in the House and Senate, said Toll, but she and Kitchel stressed they are not committees of one; that they do not speak for one another; or tell one another what to say, or how to vote.
Still, they do talk a lot, on their commutes to and from Montpelier every day… and at big Sunday family dinners.
Talking politics around the dinner table is not new for these powerful women.
Their mother, aunt and grandmother all were politically minded, and conversations around the table connected the family to Montpelier and Washington. They drove home the lesson that public service and concern for all community members was a family ethic and responsibility.
It was often the women in the family who were politically engaged, they said.
“My grandmother used to read the Congressional Journal,” said Kitchel.
Their mother Catherine, who died in the fall of 2014 at the age of 93, served in the Vermont House of Representatives in the mid-1960s. She was the fiscal-minded one in the family, taking care of the bills, taxes, and helping other farms with their bookkeeping.
Kitchel became vice-chair of appropriations in her first Senate term - more than a decade ago. That, she said, is unusual.
She brought decades of service to the state, joining the Senate after retiring as secretary of the Agency of Human Services. That experience was the reason her fellow senators propelled her immediately to a leadership role. She also serves on the Senate Transportation Committee.
Toll was recently vice-chair of the House Appropriations Committee. The chair was previously held by Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, who was voted in as the Speaker of the House.
Kitchel said she wanted to be on appropriations because the committee reviews every piece of state government from an operational, fiscal and outcome perspective - both to ensure programs are serving Vermonters and that people are getting their money’s worth.
Members of both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are responsible for poring over the myriad puzzle pieces that make up agencies and departments. They look at each piece to ensure it’s working and it still fits, or propose ways to improve problems, the sisters explained.
With the opening of the biennium this week, department heads and other public servants come before the committees to explain and justify every facet of their budgets.
Always, Kitchel stressed, “The question is: are the people getting the benefits they should?”
As the complex state budget tower is analyzed, it is up to the members of the appropriations committees to reconfigure things to see that the people’s best interests are served, said Kitchel.
Toll said she was pleased to be named to the House Appropriations Committee when she became a legislator, and had a good idea of what she was in for, thanks to Jane.
“Jane is very good at filling us in,” said Toll.
Much of the work done in appropriations - like the other legislative committees - goes unpublicized, Toll said. Unless there are cuts… or a program is being under-funded and then it often gets attention, said Toll.
Priorities in the last session included using one-time funds for expenses, working to deliver a budget which spends less than anticipated revenues, and which builds reserves, said Kitchel and Toll.
Federal Landscape Shift; 2017 Legislative Agenda
Both legislators said there are many questions about how the shifting political landscape in Washington, D.C. will affect Vermont. The state depends on federal aid for approximately a third of its budget - the fourth highest in the nation.
They are especially concerned about how federal health care policy may hit Vermonters. More than 30,000 Vermonters could see their health care directly impacted, said the legislators.
From children’s health to nursing home care, many people rely on the state and federal government programs for help, they said.
Going into the new session, the mental health care system is also a major concern, with the state having a lack of beds, said Kitchel.
Act 46, the state education law, also needs work. Its rollout has caused concern in the Northeast Kingdom, and more flexibility is needed to accommodate school choice in regions like this one, said Kitchel.
Another major issue going into the session will be how to bring economic development to rural regions of the state.
“We have to take a hard look at that,” said Kitchel. “The old economic base is eroding.”
Tourism and bringing people to enjoy the beauty of the region and its recreational opportunities, such as the mountain biking success of Kingdom Trails in East Burke, are models, they said.
“We’ve got some beautiful areas, and natural resources and a good work force,” said Kitchel.