An Interview with Tommy Walz, Barre’s New Representative to the Vermont House

by Joyce Kahn

Barre Representative, Tommy Walz. Photo courtesy of Tommy Walz.

Barre Representative, Tommy Walz. Photo courtesy of Tommy Walz.

Tommy Walz, a former longtime Barre teacher and administrator, was appointed by Governor Shumlin in April to fill Representative Tess Taylor’s spot in the House. I met with Representative Walz at the Wayside restaurant the other day to talk about his recent appointment. A transcription of our interview follows.

What are the circumstances under which you were appointed?

I’ve been active in politics since John F. Kennedy’s election. He was my inspiration. I’ve been chair of the Barre City Democratic Committee for over 10 years and have worked on the campaigns of a number of Vermont Democrats. I’ve also considered a run for the House but never took that leap for a couple of reasons: When Barre voted for its reps by ward, Paul Poirier and I were in the same ward, and I was not interested in running against him. Later, when we became a two-member district, Tess Taylor and Paul were our reps, and again I had no interest in challenging either of them. When Tess resigned, that was an opening, and I asked the Barre City Democratic Committee to consider me as a candidate. When Governor Shumlin interviewed me, I think he liked my responses and he chose me from the three names that were submitted to him.

What do you think readers would like to know about you?

I have wide and varied interests, and I like to base decisions on data rather than emotion or ideology. I want to hear all points of view.

I’m in my second term on the Spaulding High School Board (now vice chair) and I am on the Barre Supervisory Union School Board.

I believe in leaving the world a better place than when I entered it, and think my teaching career has had some impact in that direction. I also have been involved in many aspects of community service. I joined the Barre Lions Club in 2003 and am currently the district governor for District 45 (Vermont) Lions and its 38 clubs around the state.

What do you hope to accomplish in the legislature?  How can you help Barre?

These questions are intertwined. I want to represent the people of Barre City, ALL of them. I do think government has an important and essential role in setting public policy and promoting the public good. I can work with all sorts of people, including those with whom I might not agree.

What are the issues nearest and dearest to your heart?

Education, because of my long history in the field, is my primary one. Then health, labor and employment issues. The educational funding formula is broken and needs to be fixed. School districts are decreasing their budgets, but because of the funding formula, taxes can still go up. Barre City is unique. We pay less in school taxes than in municipal taxes. Barre schools have always been run very economically, ranking at the bottom of per-pupil spending for the 32 communities that have union high school districts. Unfortunately, the message never gets out to Barre City voters. Barre would have to spend $1200 more per student just to get to the state average. Montpelier spends more than the average. Despite being so frugal, even in Barre, taxes go up. I think the property tax is the wrong base. Maybe a mix of sales and income is the answer, but to put the burden solely on the property tax is wrong.

Do you think the Barre schools are still delivering a quality education?

There is not a one-to-one relationship between quality education and spending. Good teaching trumps everything. We have a high percentage of children on free and reduced lunch. The predictors for the success of a child in school are socioeconomics and the educational level of the mother, not race or ethnicity.

What have you been working on in the legislature?

I’ve landed right in thick of things. In the first couple of days, I voted for the minimum wage and prevailing wage bills. I’ve been assigned to the Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products, but Barre City doesn’t have any farms. I’ve had to get up to speed on issues that are quite new to me.

We’re looking at a bill now, which would allow producers to deliver pre-bought raw milk to the farmers’ markets. The farmer would have to get certified, and the consumer would need to visit the farm to be informed. We’ve heard a wide range of testimony from, “This is a product that will kill you,” to “No one’s been sick.” It’s somewhere in between.

Our committee is also looking at the bill on labeling genetically engineered foods, and that has been an interesting learning experience. . .It’s far more complicated than people think it is. . .

People are convinced that if it passes, Vermont will be sued because the companies don’t want to scare off customers. A suit could cost the state a lot of money, especially if it loses. The Senate is trying to carefully write the legislation so it passes constitutional muster.

What legislation would impact Barre the most?

Anything that helps unemployment—job training, doing more to get people off the UI (unemployment) rolls, promoting new businesses and getting rid of empty storefronts. That means more jobs and shopping opportunities for people. I do think Barre has come a long way with the opening of City Place. That’s a boon for Barre: there are a lot more people coming to Barre, and they’ll eat lunch and shop.

There’s something else that’s important. We don’t need just jobs, but a living wage. I voted on raising the minimum wage and prevailing wage bills for government contracts. The minimum wage bill affects and helps only 20,000 Vermonters—those who who earn less than $10/hour—so this doesn’t affect many, but there are interesting ramifications. Many say this bill would kill jobs, but it might do the opposite. Studies have shown that when people have more money, they buy more goods, which thus creates the need for more jobs. Henry Ford paid his workers a living wage so they could buy his automobiles. Those 20,000 Vermonters hold 31,500 jobs; many work more than one job because they have to. If they receive a larger salary, more jobs would be freed up, so you would have more people working. Getting to a living wage will help the employment picture, which is opposite of what you hear from conservatives.