Debate breaks out about what lawmakers' priorities should be

03/12/09 5:40PM By John Dillon
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AP Photo/Toby Talbot
(Host) Even before the Legislature returns to Montpelier from a two-week break, debate has broken out about priorities.

The Democratic leadership has committed to passing a gay marriage bill. But Governor Jim Douglas says that debate will distract lawmakers from finding ways to pull the state out of the recession.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Governor Douglas says the Legislature has time for only one thing - the economy.

He's critical of lawmakers for spending time on bills that he considers frivolous.

Douglas says there's no time for gay marriage or a bill that would exempt working farm dogs from some local regulations.

(Douglas) ``Well, frankly, I don't care so much about working dogs as I do working Vermonters. That has to be a priority for the General Assembly in the coming weeks.''

(Dillon) The working dog bill isn't on the must- pass list of Democratic legislative leaders. But they have committed to passing a gay marriage bill this year.

Douglas said the marriage debate will take the legislature's attention away from the economy. At his weekly news conference, the governor underscored his opposition to the bill.

(Douglas) ``I believe that marriage, as our statute says, is a union of a man and a woman.''

(Dillon) Nine years ago, Vermont allowed same- sex couples to join in civil unions, which provide many of the rights and privileges of marriage.

Proponents of gay marriage, however, say a civil union is not the same thing, and they are calling for full marriage rights. Douglas said the existing law is fine.

(Douglas) ``It's a very divisive issue. People feel very strongly on both sides of it. And I believe that we have to channel all of that energy in the coming couple of months on improving the economic outlook for the people of our state.''

(Dillon) But House Speaker Shap Smith says lawmakers can work on fiscal issues and gay marriage.

(Smith) "We have 14 committees and 150 members in the House and I think that we can do more than one thing at a time, and that's what we'll do in the next eight weeks."

(Dillon) The bill to legalize same sex marriage will start in the Senate, which is expected to approve it.

Smith said he supports the bill, and expects the House to pass it as well.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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