Issues

As most would suspect, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended state revenues, and at this time it is unknown what, specifically, the impact to them will be for Fiscal Year 2021 and beyond.

That said, we were able to close out Fiscal Year 2020 General Fund without dipping into our reserves.  While, ultimately, we were $51 million short, the state used a short-term internal loan from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) to cover that shortfall.  And those funds were repaid on July 27th due to relatively strong tax receipts at that time.

With regard to the FY 2020 Transportation Fund, though, the revenues were ultimately $20.4 million under the projections.

And the Education Fund came in at $21.3 below the January forecast.

The current Fiscal Year 2021, however, is where we are now focused.

By Tuesday, August 18, 2020, Governor Scott will present to the Legislature his proposed FY 2021 Budget for the remainder of year.  It is at that time we will know better the revenues coming in and the projections thru the year.

In the meantime, there is bad news on the Education Fund front, in that at this time, there is expected to be a $92 million deficit in that fund in FY 2021.  So this will be something we will have to address in the upcoming session as well.

With regard to my philosophy on state spending and budget in general, I was pleased to be able to support the State Budgets each of the last four years.  In my view, unlike in prior years, the last four budgets were relatively responsible - making some small investments where needed, and protecting the most vulnerable.

Indeed, if it had been solely up to me, I would have made some different spending decisions through the years (increased investment in tourism promotion, for example).  But, the development of a State Budget is a collaborative process with a great deal of give and take.  And, in the end, I did believe in each of the last three years, that we had a sound, sustainable budget in front of us.

While I am very hopeful that this trend of responsible, sustainable state spending will continue, I am concerned that the louder and louder calls for increased spending and new state programs, especially as a response to the impact of COVID-19, will start to gain traction.

Rest assured, I will continue to do all I can to ensure the sustainable spending/spending within our means trend that we have recently been on continues.

We have a great deal of which to be proud here in Vermont.  As other parts of our country are battling immense waves of COVID-19 cases, our trends have remained relatively steady - even as we have continued to reopen our economy.

We have one of the lowest number of total cases in the country, and our positivity rate has remained one of the lowest in the nation. 

This is all great news.  Clearly Vermonters are being very careful, are making smart decisions, and have the health and safety of our friends and neighbors at the forefront of our minds.

But, we must remain vigilant.  We all must continue to wear masks when in the presence of others, practice proper social distancing, and wash our hands with soap and water frequently.

As we move forward in these unprecedented times, however, we know that significant challenges remain. 

School administration, teachers and staff are doing heir best to ensure the safe return to school for students and staff.  Parents and families are deciding what is best for their children with regard to school.  Families throughout this community and our state are coming to grips with additional financial challenges due to the pandemic.  And our small business community is doing its level best to adapt to the new normal and try to survive economically and emerge in tact when that time comes.

Make no mistake, for the past 5 months, I have been instrumental in all of these efforts.

I founded the Stowe C19 Community Response Team immediately - an organization designed to be an efficient and nimble entity to take care of immediate needs on the ground of those in our community:

1) Grocery shopping and other necessary errand for elderly and the vulnerable population during the shutdown;

2) Food assistance for families in need;

3) Other financial assistance to those in need;

4) Prepared meals for those in need (in partnership with The Skinny Pancake and Edelweiss Mountain Deli);

5) Food drives and distribution (in partnership with the Stowe Community Church);

6) Purchase and distribution of facemasks for businesses to have on hand for customers who don't have them;

7) And more ...

I have also been instrumental in the passage of the various grant programs now in place to help our small businesses try to weather this time.  Make no mistake, I understand these grants are in no way a panacea of help.  It is simply bridge funding, but it is important bridge funding.  I am hopeful that upon our return to work on August 25th, we will be able to increase and expand these grants programs with additional funds.

Finally, I have been working with countless individuals, families, and businesses as they navigate the bureaucracy and try to access unemployment, access accurate information on the guidelines for work and travel, access funding available to them, etc.

To be clear, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the dramatic impact it is having on our community and state is forefront of my mind at this time.

And, frankly, these challenges, and how we emerge successfully from this pandemic, require the kind of commitment and dedication I ave displayed over my time in office. It is not time for on-the-job training.

 

I have spent much of my time over the past fourteen years advocating for greater attention to, and investment in, our state’s economic growth.  And, while I'm proud of my achievements over that time, I have found that far too often, the health of our state's economy is on the back burner when it comes to legislative priorities.

Unfortunately, our state's economy has taken a significant hit with COVID-19.  This is especially the case in the hospitality industry, a sector of our economy for which I have advocated vigorously throughout my career.  I am pleased that we have made the CARES Act funds available to our small businesses, but we have much more to do to ensure that our the hospitality industry, and our economy in general, emerges from this devastation successfully.

Toward that end, I am committed to doing all I can to get additional funds into the hands of our families and businesses, and to ensuring we continue to reopen our economy safely.  I am hopeful we will begin that work on day one when we return to session August 25th.

For the past 14 years, I have vigorously advocated for education funding reform and property tax relief.  Time after time, I have tried to educate my colleagues on the unfairness and unsustainability of the current system, and have pleaded for comprehensive reform. Yet, time and again, my pleas have been dismissed by the legislative leaders.

Unfortunately, I fear that instead of addressing the root cause of the problem - the education funding system itself, and reconnecting Vermont voters to the budgets they vote on and money spent - leaders in Montpelier will continue to wrest more and more control from local districts and voters, and put it in the hands of the state; continue to advocate for top-down mandates from Montpelier that they say will bring spending under control; and continue to blame local voters and school boards if spending increases.

To that, I simply say "ENOUGH!"

Our education funding system is broken and beyond repair.  It is time for meaningful reform.

The only way we will achieve true sustainability in the program and long-term property tax relief is to create a system in which more Vermonters are connected, better, to their spending decisions.

Rest assured I will continue my vigorous advocacy for just that.

 

COVID-19 RETURN TO SCHOOL

I have been on numerous Lamoille South Unified Union School Board meetings throughout this pandemic.  The most recent one I was on was Monday, August 4th, as the Board heard the educational delivery options for this year that had been developed by staff, and then proceeded to discuss both of them, ask questions, and make a decision.

Frankly, I don't envy anybody involved in making these decisions for our community/school. Whether it is the teachers and staff on the ground at our schools, or parents and students making their decisions about how to proceed this fall, I feel for all of you.

What has become clear through this entire time is that we have three keys to a successful education system - pandemic or not!

1) A very engaged community of parents and families and their willingness to share their thoughts and concern;  

2) School Board members working incredibly diligently on every aspect of the return; and

3) an extremely dedicated team of teachers and staff at the Stowe Elementary School, Stowe Middle School, and Stowe High School.

As with all things through this pandemic, I know that everybody is feeling a bit anxious as the date for return draws nearer.  But I know that our community stands with all of them as they move forward.

 

FIGHTING FOR LCOAL CONTROL

Since arriving in the Vermont House in 2007, I have been a fierce advocate for local control - both in terms of education finance and budgets, and in terms of education delivery, local decision-making, and the creation of school district policies.

Unfortunately, as the years have passed, the growing trend has been to wrest more and more control from the local districts and voters and put it in the hands of the state.

From decisions about what kind of cleaning products a school must purchase, and purposefully placing communities in the position of having to eliminate educational choice for parents and students, to the state-mandated change to proficiency-based learning, and the forced consolidation of school districts under Act 46, local authority and decision-making by school boards and voters is being replaced by the top-down, one-size fits all, approach to education.

This trend, especially in a state that claims to value local control of education, is a great disappointment, and one I pledge to continue to fight.

Responsible stewardship of our environment has made the Vermont what it is.  That commitment is a tradition of which we should be proud and must continue.  Make no mistake, protecting our environment and ensuring our economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive goals.  Rather, they can, and must, go hand in hand.

 

PERMITTING PROCESS AND ACT 250

Vermont's land-use law was an important step in the protection of our natural environment and working landscape, and it continues to be a key component in the development of our lands, and therefore, in our state's economy.

As a native Vermonter and one who is proud of our environmental heritage , I firmly believe there is absolutely no reason to undermine the long-established environmental standards of Act 250.  That said, however, I do believe there are some changes that should be made to the process itself.  After all, significant public policy developments have occurred over the course of the last forty years (since the adoption of Act 250) that require modifications be made.  For example, at the time of the adoption of Act 250, cities and towns throughout Vermont did not have any established zoning ordinances or plans.  Now, many have complete zoning bylaws that were developed by the local communities. 

Additionally, it has become clear throughout the last decade especially, that there is a great deal of unpredictability in the Act 250 process.  Employers attempting to grow their business to provide more and/or better paying jobs to Vermonters have found it increasingly difficult to plan for Act 250 reviews and decisions because of this unpredictability.

Instead of the state addressing these difficulties in a broad context, however, the legislature in recent years, has adopted special carve-outs, or exemptions, for certain industries or efforts that they deem "appropriate."  These include large-scale, renewable energy facilities; composting facilities, and and some housing projects.

Getting a permit from the State should be a reasonable process - for any business or entity.  We must work collaboratively to reform Act 250 so that our environmental goals are maintained, but in a way that ensures the permitting process is more easily navigable, more predictable, and less costly.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE

I

My long, and sometimes lonely, quest to establish an Ethics Commission and develop a conflict of interest code of conduct for elected and appointed officials in Vermont finally came to fruition in 2017.

As background, in July 2013, the Telecom Czar appointed by Governor Peter Shumlin resigned to take a senior position with VTel, a company that had received $8.5 million in state funds in the two years this person was a voting members of the state board that authorized the funds.

In February 2014, a sitting Democratic legislator was hired as a director of a special interest group having just led the passage of the organization's legislation the prior year.  Her responsibilities as a new employee (while she was also a legislator) were to work with lobbyists to prepare for any future legislative action.

And, in March 2014, the Vermont House Majority Whip, a Democrat, resigned mid-term to become executive director of a single-payer health care advocacy organization.

While in my mind, and the mind of others, these - and other similar instances - raised significant ethical questions and perceptions of conflicts of interest, there was no support in Montpelier for putting into place an independent ethics commission or code of conduct for our elected and appointed officials.

Yet, I started my quest.

And, then continued my quest anyway - year ... after year!

After all, we hear over and over again the distrust the public has for politics and politicians.  While politics should be regarded as a noble profession, as it is a critical way to ensure government works for the people, it has been reduced, with good reason in many cases, to the butt of late-night talk show jokes.

While ours is a small state, and our public officials are very accessible, that does not mean that transparency and accountability are always present.  And, it certainly doesn't mean that conflicts of interest don't arise.

Instead of Vermont leading the way in this regard, though, we were far behind most states.  We were only one of five states that did not have an Ethics commission, and was last ranked 37th in government integrity from the Center for Public Integrity.

I was very happy, therefore, that in 2017, the Vermont House and Senate passed its first Ethics Bill.  And the Governor happily signed it.  While the final piece of legislation is not all I had hoped for, it is an important first step to ensure accountability and transparency in our government.

To be clear, there is still more to do to ensure we have ethics policies in place, but this was a good first step.

Following the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, calls for police reform throughout the country have been intense and many.  Fortunately, in Vermont, our state's public safety community had already been working on significant reform proposals to ensure equality and justice for ALL Vermonters.

In early June, therefore, the public safety community – Vermont Department of Public Safety, Vermont State Police, Vermont Attorney General’s Office, Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, Vermont Sheriff’s Association, and the Vermont State Police Fair and Impartial Policing Committee – in an effort to accelerate the work already underway, came forward proactively with a draft Law Enforcement Modernization and Reform Plan.

The 10 recommendations included in this draft plan are as follows:

1) Change hiring practices at law enforcement agencies

2) Modernize training of law enforcement personnel

3) Improve the process for promotions and selecting supervisors

4) Ensure allegations of police misconduct are investigated with transparency and consistency

5) Implement a standardized, statewide data collection system for use of force, traffic stops, arrests, mental health and other related topics

6) Require body-worn cameras for all law enforcement officers

7) Redouble community collaboration efforts.

8) Implement one or more means of providing community oversight of police

9) Create and adopt a statewide use-of-force policy

10) Develop a statewide stance on use of military surplus equipment

"The agencies and individuals involved in creating these recommendations understand they are a starting point, not a finish line, and they will be evaluated and refined with extensive community input. Many of the strategies could be implemented within three to six months, but the pace will be tempered as needed to ensure all Vermonters, especially those who have experienced inequity firsthand, can offer their ideas."

Simultaneously, I am pleased to report that the Vermont Legislature also put forward – and passed unanimously in the House – police reform legislation.  This legislation bans police from using chokeholds, mandates that all state troopers wear body cameras, and requires increased data reporting and conditions state funding on such reporting.

To be clear, there is much to be done in the way of ensuring equal treatment and justice for all Vermonters, but both of the items above are positive first steps toward that important goal.