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Vermont Governor Appoints New Cabinet Secretaries

WAMC/Pat Bradley

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin announced new administration appointments Thursday, filling two key cabinet positions.

The governor filled top positions in the agencies of Administration and Human Services.
Current Agency of Natural Resources deputy secretary Justin Johnson will become Secretary of Administration. Current Secretary Jeb Spaulding is leaving to become Chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges.

The Secretary of Administration is responsible for overseeing the state’s finances and the state budget. He is also the point person with the Legislature during negotiations over the annual budget bill.
Seven Days Political Columnist Paul Heintz notes that the appointments for two of the most important positions in state government have been made as the governor prepares for an expected tough legislative session.  “The Secretary of Administration essentially has broad authority over the entire cabinet, over the state budget. And the outgoing Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding has really served as co-governor to Peter Shumlin over the last four years. The other position, Secretary of Human Services, has authority over almost half the general fund budget and a ton of departments that are having some struggles right now. Both child protection and health care reform.  So those replacements have challenges  to deal with.”

Middlebury College Professor Emeritus of Political Science Eric Davis calls new Administration Secretary Justin Johnson a non-political professional manager.  “It was clear that when Jeb Spaulding spoke people in the Legislature knew that he was speaking for the governor. Spaulding and Shumlin go back a long way. Spaulding helped Shumlin get elected governor the first time.  Justin Johnson doesn’t have that kind of personal and political closeness with the governor. So that will be interesting to see how that relationship develops. Also putting together the state budget next year is going to be  a challenge.”

The governor appointed Hal Cohen Secretary of Human Services. Cohen, who has been the director of Capstone Community Action for nearly 20 years, says accepting the job at the state agency is a way of fulfilling his mission.  “The mission of AHS is to improve the well-being of all Vermonters and especially to protect vulnerable citizens. I think being at the state level at that agency I’ll be able to have a greater impact that I’ve had even at Capstone Community Action.”

Heintz will be watching how effective Cohen will be as he comes to the position from outside government.  “Hal Cohen hails from the advocacy community. He’s definitely someone who has fought for low income Vermonters over the years. That might be encouraging to people who are concerned about the budget cuts that the Agency of Human Services faces.  But I think one question will be how much he has the governor’s ear. He replaces Doug Racine who most people believe was sort-of shut out of the decision making process for quite some time. So I think the question with Hal Cohen will be does he really have a lot of decision making authority or will a lot of decisions be made out of the governor’s office and by the budget writers?” 

Davis says the Human Services agency faces major issues that Cohen must deal with as he moves into the position.  “First of all, if there is going to be a reduction in state spending next year it is going to be one of the areas that’s going to take the biggest hit.  Second there are some serious management issues.  Some people would say in fact it’s too big to properly manage.   I think the management challenges are particularlly acute in the Department of Children and Families.  The Agency and the Department of Children and Families need to reexamine some of the protocols for treating children at high risk.  So that’s certainly going to be the new secretary, Hal Cohen, one of his major challenges starting out.”

Interim Secretary of Human Services Dr. Harry Chen will return to his position as Commissioner of the Department of Health. The appointments are effective in January.

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