Vermont's capitol dome is freshly covered in gold leaf, but there are few other signs of luxury in this relaxed but proudly frugal citizens' legislature.
Even decorating the dome was threatened by economy-minded legislators, who, when it was first proposed, suggested that gold paint would do. But the appropriations committee held out for tradition, even thought it is one of Vermont's few expensive ones.
The 1978 legislative session, which began here today, will run about 14 weeks and cost just over $100,000 a week, according to estimates. Congress spent 10 times that every week of the past year on the franked mail privilege alone.
None of the 180 state senators and representatives here has a staff aide, a government car or even a private office. For many, their automobile trunks are their file cabinets.
The mood is determinedly cheap. Sen. Graham Newell remarked that one of the first actions in the present capitol came in April, 1861, after Ft. Summer had been attacked.
"In 48 hours they voted to raise seven regiments and levy a general tax to pay for them," Newell said, shaking his head in admiration of his predecessor's speed. "Taxes take a lot more discussion today."
The legislature closely watches its own printing costs. "I hope we're recycling the paper," one senator grumbled in dismay at the number of bills introduced in the House.
House Speaker Timothy J. O'Connor told the opening session that each member could have only one copy of the journal of the 1977 session. "Please put it in a safe place," he said.
A near total lack of secrecy is also a hallmark of the Vermont Legislature.
The doors to every committee room are open to all. A visiting reporter was flabbergasted when the commerce committee chairman turned to him this morning and asked whether he wanted to add anything to the discussion of possible new regulations for the insurance industry.
Committee rooms have the atmosphere of college seminars. Members sit around oval tables, and visitors are encouraged to use any free chair or to perch on windowseats. An occasional member puts his feet on the table as he tips his chair back. First names are the rule.
"Just walk in any door," Sergeant-at-Arms Reide Payne advises. "They don't want you to knock because then someone would have to get up to let you in.'
Only the appropriations committees have staff aides, so one member of each committee is appointed clerk and keeps the records.
Speaker O'Connor, who gaveled the session to order this morning, remembers going to Washington with New York Speaker Stanley Steingut to testify on welfare legislation. He learned that Steingut had a staff in New York's Washington office and an office in New York City in addition to his Albany base.
"I was hoping he wouldn't ask me where my staff was," O'Connor said.
Later, O'Connor was at a meeting at which his opposite numbers from several larger states introduced a series of assistants His only companion was then Lt. Gov. Brian Burns, so he quickly introduced him as his aide. "I couldn't tell them I had nobody," O'Connor joked.
In addition to Payne and Bea Martel, the capitol postmistress who spent today assigning post office box numbers to the legislators, the legislature employs one assistant sergeant-at-arms, a committee room clerk who makes sure two committees don't wind up in the same room and who also arranges tours for school groups; two house doorkeepers; two senate doorkeepers (there's one vacancy); and 10 eight-graders who work as pages.
This compliment of workers was authorized in 1330 by an act aimed at ensuring that "the chambers are kept in good order . . . the fires are seasonably kindled and diligently tended, and carefully extinguished . . ."
The pages earn $55 a week and $25 in expenses. They go to school Mondays - a day the legislature never meets. The page sitting outside Payne's office today was reading "Beaver Business" between running errands. Payne calls the male pages
Among the most striking constrasts between Vermont's legislature and other deliberative bodies is its lack of lawyers. There are 14. Of the 180 members, 15 list themselves as homemakers or students. The youngest is 23, although any Vermonter over 18 can be elected.
"This is a lawyers bill," is one of the favorite Montpelier euphemisms for "I don't like this bill," according to the witty Legislation Lexicon written by Madeline Kunin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Each legislator except the speaker of the House is paid $200 a week while the legislature is in session. Those who commute get 15 cents a mile for travel and $15 a day for meals. Those who take rooms in Montpelier was given $20 a day for their lodging, $15 a day for meals and 15 cents a mile for one trip home each week.
The speaker gets $250 a week during the session and $100 a week the rest of the year. Sessions vary in length, but this one is scheduled to last 14 weeks.
Although Vermont is small and without great resources, its government seems to be doing something right.
An editorial in The Burlington Free Press marking the start of the session struck a tone unfamiliar to ears inmany parts of the country.
"The state of the state is robust. The economy is healthier than it has been for several years. The outlook is just as encouraging."
One of the major questions before the legislature is what to do about the state's $21 million budget surplus and how to prevent future surpluses of that size. Taxes will be cut, but they must decide which ones to reduce.
The Vermont legislators are not as chauvinistic as Vermont's Revolutionary War hero, Ethan Allen, perhaps, but they are proud of their system. On the wall of the capitol are Allen's words:
"I am as determined to preserve the independence of Vermont as Congress in that of the union, and rather than fail I will retire with my heaty Green Mountain Boys into the caverns of the mountains and make war on all mankind."