As the Vermont General Assembly gathers for the new session, representatives arrive with a lengthy wish list, from minimum wage to paid family leave to school staffing to tax reform to marijuana legalization. What lies at the top, however, depends upon the representative. The Bridge sat down with Washington County’s and Montpelier’s representatives and senators to get their perspective on the upcoming session and what each hopes to see—and expects—for the State House in 2018.
Montpelier is represented in the Vermont House of Representatives by Democrats Warren Kitzmiller and Mary Hooper. Kitzmiller was appointed to the Vermont House in 2001 after the death of his wife Karen Kitzmiller. He currently serves as the Ranking Member of the House Government Operations Committee. Mary Hooper was elected to the Vermont House in 2008 and serves on the House Committee on Appropriations.
Like many other legislators, he is concerned about impacts from the recently passed federal tax reform bill. “We have to worry about potential changes coming out of Washington,” he said. “We were expecting cuts to programs that help people.
” Kitzmiller said that the Vermont House would like to work on a minimum wage bill and that the Vermont Senate would like to work on paid family leave.
“I would support raising it,” he said about a minimum wage bill. Kitzmiller believes that if wages were raised, people could survive with a bigger paycheck and programs to help people in need could be reduced. “Keep children fed,” he reasoned, “Keep children and adults healthy. School meal programs could be reduced because fewer people might need them.
” Kitzmiller identified water quality as an issue, with needed spending to improve Lake Champlain. He believes that the legislature will legalize marijuana but worries about testing for impairment, particularly behind the wheel. “There are already people driving while high,” he said and predicted there would be more of such people.
Kitzmiller thinks that a lot of legislators will have problems with Gov. Scott’s desire to cut the staff in the state schools. “A lot of us are going to have a real problem with that,” he said.
He also supports a carbon tax, with the hope that the increased cost of gas at the pump would lead to greater sales of electric cars.
It’s a hope echoed by Rep. Mary Hooper, who considers climate change a major issue and has been devoting significant energy and time to addressing it throughout her political career. As Montpelier’s mayor, Hooper supported city building energy audits, which resulted in more energy efficient motors in heating, cooling, and ventilation systems as well as upgrades to lighting systems.
As a legislator she says she was “a ringleader for renewable energy when I was on the [House] Institutions Committee.
Hooper identified mental health particularly high on her to-do list. “Last year we found $8.6 million to put into the state’s designated [mental health] agencies. “We need to hang onto the people doing incredible work taking care of people in a mental health crisis,” she said. “And we need to do substantially more.” She noted her particular concern for people in a mental health crisis who are sometimes “stuck in emergency rooms.
” Greater economic security is another goal. On the subject of minimum wage legislation, she said she subscribes to the philosophy that everyone needs a decent wage, a decent home, and access to health care. “I want to push the family leave bill to the finish line,” she said.
On the subject of good government, she feels that “We’ve not been spending enough in making our state government work properly. We need to make more choices about what government can and can’t do.” This includes more transparency. About the workings of the Appropriations Committee, she said, “Why not hold a budget hearing at the beginning of the process. Typically we write a budget. Why not ask them [the voting public] to address the committee at the beginning of the session so that we can create a budget to meet those expectations?”
Washington County is represented in the Vermont Senate by Ann Cummings, Anthony Pollina and Francis Brooks. Ann Cummings is Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance and first took office in 1998. Anthony Pollina first took office in 2010 and is Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and also serves on the Finance Committee. Francis Brooks was elected to the Vermont Senate in 2016 and took office in 2017. He sits on the Agriculture and Institutions Committees.
Senator Cummings concentrated her remarks on getting the state’s economy “moving better than it has been moving.”
“We have been so long on totally restrictive budgets,” she said. “We’re trying to hold on.”
Education is also important to her. “We do need to get more of our high school graduates to continue their education,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be college. They need to get the high school education they need so they can get a job in the new economy.”
Turning to the current discussion of raising the minimum wage, she said, “The average Vermonter’s income has been stagnant for 10 years. There’s been very little wage growth. Ninety percent of our businesses have less than 20 employees. A lot of us want to make the minimum wage a living wage. And that’s going to be the recommendation from the study committee. But how quickly can we get there without causing a major disruption? This could affect agencies that depend on state money.” She noted even some small town employers aren’t making more than $15/hour. “It’s walking a very narrow line, trying to do what we want to do,” she said.
Cummings said the state’s economy is “very complex.” True enough people with investments in the stock market have done well. “But wages aren’t going up and the costs are. Everyone is working two or three jobs. People are buying online. People in retail are hurting. Any number of things can go wrong,” she said.
State Senator Anthony Pollina is calling for reforming Vermont’s tax system so that it is more fair. He pointed out that low and middle class Vermonters are paying a higher percentage of their total income on taxes. But really high-income people are paying a smaller percentage of their total income on taxes. “I have a specific bill,” he said, “I’m putting in to make education funding more fair. It would move us from property-based to income-based taxes to pay for schools. It raises significant new revenue to help pay for schools and makes tuition-free college available for most Vermonters.”
“The number one problem we face is inequality,” Pollina declared. “Middle class Vermonters don’t have the resources they need,” he said. “And a shrinking middle class undermines tax revenues and business. When people have money, we have a strong economy,” he argued.
“What would it be like to live on $10 per hour?” Pollina asked. Answering his own question, he said, “It’s not enough to make ends meet. Not enough to pay for rent, food, health care, basic expenses.”
Like others in the legislature, Pollina puts water quality issues on the table. “We have to do something about water quality this year,” he said. “We have to raise money to invest in clean water projects.” Senator Brooks, speaking as a member of the Senate Agricultural Committee, took note of the need to improve the water quality of Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi. But taking action will not be cheap. “That’s an expensive price tag,” he said.
Brooks sees strong arguments on both sides of whether to raise the minimum wage. “I personally would work favorably for that concept,” he said.
When asked about the apparent closure of Onion River Sports in downtown Montpelier, Brooks said that “the ivory tower people are saying that employment is high, and the stock market is going bananas.” Brooks called these “high altitude statements.” He said that despite these exaggerated descriptions of what’s happening to the nation’s economy, the acid test or what he called “the ultimate reality” is what’s happening to people locally. And he acknowledged that many individuals “are struggling economically.”