At the most fundamental level, I see one of my responsibilities as getting everyone to the proverbial table – not just the people who are already there but also those who have valuable expertise but may lack access to established channels of influence and communication. We cannot come up with good solutions if we do not take a range of experience and situations into account. This kind of collaboration is needed as we face not only the issues addressed below but the many other equally important issues before us.
The issue of equity has many layers, but a core element is the need to nurture and harness the talents of all Vermonters. This requires the removal of barriers to participation that come in many forms.
Enacting paid family leave can help as we know that the absence of this benefit unduly impacts women and single-parent households. We need to make it easier to balance health, career, and family needs and not ask Vermonters to choose between a loved one in need and a paycheck keeping the family afloat. This elementary social good not only helps maintain workforce stability but also promotes improved maternal and child health outcomes -- an across-the-board benefit for the entire healthcare system.
We also risk losing the engagement of all in our state until we face and address the realities of race-based inequities. We start to do this by not only taking into account our individual implicit biases but also acknowledging and seeking change to structural racism. This awareness must be brought to proposed solutions along with closer scrutiny of the underlying data that informs our choices.
I believe that healthcare is a basic human right. Without good health, Vermonters are limited in their pursuit of all other goals. Families, schools, businesses, and state budgets are struggling under the weight of rising healthcare costs, and our current system of health insurance risks becoming a disincentive for Vermonters to explore self employment and entrepreneurship.
Knowing that prevention is the cornerstone of sound healthcare policy, we need to work to provide primary care for every Vermonter. We must also continue to collaborate with federally qualified health centers (FQHC) to improve access. With a focus on these fundamentals, we will be better positioned to address and curb the use of costly emergency rooms services and meet the needs of those with chronic conditions. We must also continue reforming our system of payment and incentivize health outcomes in a way that seeks to decrease visits, prescriptions and procedures.
Finally, healthcare reform must take into account how healthcare services are grappling with other determining factors - such as homelessness, substance abuse, and domestic violence - that require a more closely coordinated approach with social services. We also need to integrate social workers into our emergency response teams so that some of the tragic outcomes we've seen for those experiencing mental health crises might be avoided.
I supported gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Those who work full-time need to be able to make ends meet. I recognize this is not an easy issue. My conversations with small business owners illustrate the complexities.
One major employer in our district told me that competitive wages and a supportive work environment are fundamental to reducing turnover. This translates to lower training costs and novice errors and thus greater productivity for the business, which can in turn allow for expansion and more hiring. I am interested in exploring additional ways to build support for this kind of productive cycle.
At the same time, another small business owner explained that increasing wages would likely result in a cut-back to some employee hours. Still another business voiced concern about the upward pressure across the spectrum of skilled labor while also acknowledging that we are all subsidizing low wage employers--including large corporations-- through a range of other programs that are needed when employees are not paid a fair wage.
The related topic of closing the wage gap between men and women needs our attention and action, especially when the poverty rate for women has stayed consistently higher than that of men. The necessity of access to quality childcare -- as well as support for those who provide this essential care -- is also of paramount importance to any economic development strategy.
STEWARDSHIP OF NATURAL RESOURCES
An important part of Vermont’s identity is defined by the extraordinary natural resources that surround us. Vermont relies heavily on its natural resources -- most obviously in the agricultural and tourism sectors -- and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who have cared for these natural systems over the generations.
Many of these ecosystems now face increasingly urgent pressures, especially our waters. I am troubled by the growing revelations of groundwater contamination. We have made progress in cleaning our water, but there is clearly more to be done. Without action, we risk further impairing this vital resource upon which public health depends and also face a growing host of federal mandates and associated financial penalties.
Addressing climate change is another imperative that requires urgent action on multiple fronts. It not only threatens to negatively impact sugaring operations and ski resorts in Vermont but also vital ecological systems across the planet. Greater renewable energy output is an important path to meeting our state goals; this sector also serves as an important engine for job growth. I support responsibly sited renewable energy projects that take into account community input. Our leadership on regional initiatives such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Transportation Climate Initiative should also continue.
More must also be done in term of energy conservation and efficiency as the returns cited for each dollar invested are impressive, there is untapped residential and commercial opportunity, and we have significant local talent and knowledge in East Montpelier and Middlesex available to us. We also need to cultivate public transportation, bicycle and park-and-ride infrastructure, alternative ride-share programs, and other creative approaches to meeting our transportation needs. Finally, continued adaptation planning to improve resilience is critical to our future well-being.
I support a ban on any more hydraulic fracking infrastructure, including pipelines. Not only do these projects risk contamination to groundwater and consequently human health, but mistaken cost estimates threaten a dramatic utility rate increase. We need to strengthen laws to give local communities more influence over where this kind of project is sited.
TAXES AND AFFORDABILITY
There is no question that affordability needs to be a top priority. We know that education costs represent the largest proportion of our property tax bills. One factor contributing to these increases is the practice of borrowing funds from the Education Fund for other priorities.
To the extent that any amount restored to the Education Fund is less than that borrowed, a recommendation is made to increase the education tax rate. This practice is not sustainable.
The Joint Fiscal Office and Tax Department released a study on a proposal from Senator Pollina seeking to ease the cost of property taxes and more equitably balance payment by income Currently, a lower percentage of income is typically paid by those with high incomes who instead tend to pay by property value. Discussion of these findings will hopefully bring a fuller range of tax issues to the forefront and help ensure that everyone pays their fair share.
TRAINING AND EDUCATION
Through my work at the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges, I know how important training and education are to individual and state prosperity. Given the many national and state proposals on free college, I would like to explore whether there are viable options for making higher education in Vermont more affordable.
It is also clear that high rates of retirement within the trades translate to a need for greater participation for those entering the workforce, especially for women. Workforce certifications – in areas ranging from cosmetology to auto mechanics – also offer greater economic opportunity.
Higher education is a top reason that people move to Vermont and therefore a significant part of growing Vermont’s economy and expanding our tax base. After spending their college savings here, these individuals create a pool of talent for employers. Many also start businesses of their own. This is how some of our well-known companies began as well as more recent start-ups, not to mention an array of non-profit organizations working on social, ecological and economic fronts.