MONTPELIER, Vt. — Anyone looking for money from the Vermont Legislature will have to go through a formidable pair of sisters first.
Rep. Catherine “Kitty” Toll assumed the chairmanship of the state House Appropriations Committee this month, opposite her older sister, Sen. Jane Kitchel, who has led the Senate Appropriations Committee since 2011.
For Toll and Kitchel, both Democrats who live in the most conservative part of ultra-liberal Vermont, it’s a recognition of their abilities that follows a lifetime of service and being immersed in current events, all a part of their family life for well over half a century.
“It was embedded in so many of our experiences,” Kitchel said this week in the Statehouse.
Toll and Kitchel still live within a few miles of where they grew up in Danville in Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom. They make the 40-minute commute to Montpelier almost every day during the legislative session.
Vermont Senate President Tim Ashe, a Democrat, said the Senate would be lost without Kitchel managing the budget process.
“She’s got the expertise of a chief of staff, six commissioners and a secretary to boot. We should send the administration an invoice for her work,” he said. “If Jane had a huge ego and was in this for the recognition, she’d have been governor by now.”
In a letter to the editor of the Caledonian Record, which first noted the positions of the local sisters, Ashe said, “That sister Kitty of hers is OK, too.”
The sisters’ mother served in the Legislature in the 1960s. Toll recalls spending time as a child in the Statehouse with her mother and later working there as a page in the 1970s.
“What I remember most, and what I still appreciate, is the smell of this building,” Toll, 57, said during a Statehouse interview with her sister in the Senate Appropriations committee room. “Every day when I walk in, I do not take that for granted, I love the smell of this building. It’s like the smell you’d remember of your grandmother’s house.”
Toll and Kitchel grew up on the family farm, on U.S. Route 2 just east of Danville village, about 25 miles northeast of Montpelier.
“We grew up in that farm tradition where everybody regardless of how much money or little money they had were welcome,” said Kitchel, 71.
Kitchel said she remembered how after Vermont Republican U.S. Sen. Ralph Flanders called in the 1950s for the censure of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy for his Communist-hunting excesses, Flanders’ daughter — their Danville neighbor — needed police protection because of threats against the lives of the Flanders’ family.
“It was really quite something for a little Vermont village,” she said.
The experiences helped expose them to local, state and national politics.
Kitchel went on to work in state government, rising to become secretary of the Agency of Human Services, which oversees roughly half the state budget. She was first elected to the Senate in 2004, and her experience at the agency landed her on the Appropriations Committee.
Toll worked for years as a schoolteacher before she was elected to the Legislature in 2008. She campaigned in a normally Republican area by knocking on almost every door in her district.
“The question that I heard more often than anything the first time I ran was, ‘How’s your mother?'” she said.
She joined the Appropriations Committee in 2010 and was appointed chair this month.
Now, as Toll and Kitchel prepare to lead legislative discussions on how Vermont spends its money, they’re going to have lots to talk about, given what they feel is the economic uncertainty created by the incoming Trump administration.
“We’re going to have to keep in mind what could happen federally,” Toll said. “We still have to prepare a budget for the state of Vermont.”