The legislature worked overtime via zoom to do our best to confront the pandemic – the worst health and economic crisis any of us have ever seen. My position to colleagues was consistent, let’s make sure relief funds get into Vermonter’s pockets and into long-term infrastructure that benefits our communities. To that end the Senate passed a $60 million hazard pay bill to acknowledge the non-stop work done by vital workers. We all came to realize that without grocery clerks and nursing home cleaners our communities would grind to a halt. In the end our hazard pay bill was watered down but managed to cover health workers.
We also invested in broadband build out so that more Vermont students could successfully endure remote learning should that be needed.
And, of course, we assisted businesses, renters, people who are homeless, many who depend on food banks and school meals for food security, farmers, the arts community and more. VT Digger has a decent summary that you can find here.
In 2012 I co-founded the legislative Climate Caucus with Rep. Margaret Cheney (D-Norwich). We wanted to bring the climate change discussion out of committee silos to help legislators recognize how far-reaching and urgent climate change is for our state and world.
There is no single greater threat to our state, our economy or humanity than global climate change. While Vermont’s ability to impact the country’s carbon output is insignificant our ability to lead is noteworthy. Look at our record with Efficiency Vermont, land use planning, and renewable development. These policies are effective and end up being copied around the country. The nation and the world need to act fast and Vermont can help by charting the course.
If we don’t act on climate change we will also put our economy at risk. On the other hand, if we embrace the challenge and position ourselves as a go-to state for solutions we can protect the environment and enhance our economy. Consider that solar energy jobs are among the fastest growing segment of Vermont’s economy already. We should build on this potential, brand ourselves as climate change leaders and strengthen our economy as we go.
By 2020 the Climate Caucus has swelled to over 80 legislators and we have successfully passed emission reduction planning legislation and advanced my bill to make Vermont utilities 100% renewable by 2030. There is more to do.
I was the first legislator in Vermont to introduce a $15 minimum wage bill in 2014. In 2018 Gov. Scott vetoed similar legislation and earlier this year (February 2020) we overrode his veto pushing Vermont’s minimum wage to $12.55 by 2022. We must go further because the path to a strong middle class requires that anyone working full time be able to meet their basic needs.
We can’t expect Vermont businesses to accept a $15 minimum wage overnight but we need to get there as soon as possible. In 2014 one of the very real impacts of our fight for $15 bill was that it helped make many legislators comfortable with the idea of getting to $10.50. As I said at the time, when I am hoping to sell a used car for $3,000 I put $4,000 on the window.
This is a good example of my approach to Montpelier – I try and push legislators to go further and address comprehensive solutions rather than tiny, piecemeal steps.
Addressing Racism & Inequality
In 2018 I was proud to help craft the systemic racism bill that created a Director of Racial Equity in the Governor’s administration. This role is charged with collecting data to help us understand and address policies in Vermont that maintain racial inequality.
I have also pushed for a greater transparency in law enforcement oversight. When a police officer has their conduct reviewed citizens need to be at the table. As it stands now, the review is conducted solely by other law enforcement agencies. Our bill in 2018 got stalled on this point but in June 2020 we managed to put 5 citizen seats on the state’s law enforcement oversight board.
In 2020 we banned choke holds and made it clear state funding will be cut for law enforcement agencies that don’t comply with our race data collection mandate. We also look forward to passing the full 2021 budget so that mental health and social workers augment law enforcement responses while money for officers is trimmed back.
We are doing more than I’ve covered here and we have a long way to go but the grassroots call for racial equity has prompted significant action in Montpelier.
Since my first days in the House I have been part of several tri-partisan coalitions that want to shift school taxes to an income tax. Most people agree this would be a better option and make the process more straightforward. In January 2016 I was the lead sponsor of a bill that takes a small twist on this long-standing goal. H.656 has over 30 sponsors and extends “income-sensitivity” to all Vermont homeowners.
This change would mean everyone would pay based on income. Income-sensitivity limits the school tax bill for the great majority of Vermonters to about 3% of income. Under our current system, wealthier families pay as little as 0.6% of their income for the school tax. When we extend income-sensitivity to all homeowners we raise money from those who can best afford it. That allows us to reduce property taxes for households earning less than $200,000. In January 2017 the Vermont Department of Taxes, working with legislative fiscal staff, will bring the legislature modeling for this proposal. With any luck this will result in a smaller tax bill for the vast majority of Vermonters.
Income inequality hurts. It is a national phenomenon but is rampant here in our state too, as you can see.
Over my five terms in Montpelier I have developed a reputation for reminding legislators that Vermont’s median household income is about $53,000. That means half of all Vermont households earn less than $53,000. In Chittenden County the numbers are higher but the same principle applies – too many families are living paycheck to paycheck.
Part of the solution is making our tax system more progressive. We have a progressive income tax in Vermont, but when we add in other taxes (property, sales, rooms & meals) our overall burden falls on middle-income families.
We can do better and I have been a consistent advocate for making our tax code more progressive so that working families and middle-income families get a break while the wealthiest Vermonters pay their fair share. We can’t starve state government since austerity budgets hurt low-income families the most. At the same time, the data proves middle-class families are maxed out and deserve relief.
Political leaders in Montpelier often lament that our young people are leaving the state. At the same time they are slow to act on wages, climate change, and basic rights for working people – issues young people care deeply about.
After years of fighting for earned sick leave, Vermont became the fifth state to insist that workers have a paid day off when they are sick. I’m proud to have played a role over the decade of advocacy it took to become law.
We still need paid family leave so that young people are attracted to Vermont as a good place to raise children. Right now a mother in Vermont can take six weeks of un-paid time off to care for a new born. Forty miles north of us residents of Quebec are given a year off with about 2/3 pay. I have introduced a modest family leave bill that would give residents 6 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or an ailing parent, etc. Now that sick leave is guaranteed to Vermonters I hope this will become the next frontier to strengthen families and empower our work force (especially women who are so often primary care givers).
Affordable higher ed is another problem we face in Vermont. Our state colleges are scraping by while UVM tuition is out of range for too many Vermont families. We are robbing our young people of the opportunity to get ahead. Ask 8th graders if they sense their parents’ stress about paying for college and many will say they do. My bet is that these kids recognize there isn’t much point in trying hard in high school since their options for college are bleak. We are cheating them and must find a path to making our state college system affordable to every Vermonter.
Strengthening our Democracy
In my view we cannot have an effective government while money plays such a big role in our elections. Obviously we need to reverse the Citizen’s United decision at the Federal level. But there is plenty of opportunity to make meaningful changes at the state level too. Sadly we haven’t been able to convince legislative leaders to take the plunge. For example, we could ban corporate donations in Vermont. So far that idea has been defeated at every turn.
We could also enact my bill for public funding of elections. People bristle at the idea of taxpayers funding elections but we must recognize a few factors:
- Elections are relatively cheap compared to the state’s $4 billion budget.
- Someone is paying for elections today so we better recognize that the donor class is exerting a lot of influence over our leaders.
- States that use public funding mechanisms (Maine & Connecticut for example) see a much greater level of contested races and more young people getting involved.
I have also been a champion of efforts to expand voter registration. H.458 was signed into law in April 2016 and allows any Vermonter getting or renewing a license to automatically be added to the voter rolls (unless they want to opt-out).