BRATTLEBORO—Affordability. What does that word mean to you?
To me, the word has come to mean necessary, to mean room to breathe, to mean thriving, to mean having enough resources to meet immediate needs like housing and food. Affordability means all that — and having resources to put away for a rainy day. And enough resources left over for dinner and a movie.
As a Vermonter, it is painful to admit that our state is not affordable for many of us. Wages and cost of living wave to each other from across a cavernous no-man’s land. Many Vermonters have acclimated to making do. To getting by. To “or-someday”-ing.
I appreciate Gov. Phil Scott’s focus on affordability. But Rep. Tristan Toleno (D-Brattleboro), a recent guest on my radio program, raised a good question: How is Scott defining affordability? This makes me ask: Will that definition lead to policy that allows more Vermonters to thrive and not just make do?
Toleno, who has represented Brattleboro’s District 3 in the Statehouse since 2012, serves on the State Workforce Development Board, the House Committee on Government Operations, the House Rules Committee, and the Joint Rules committee. He works as a caterer and a purveyor of wood-fired pizzas when not making the sausage in the Legislature.
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Olga Peters: I was feeling a little disappointed with the State of the State address because I felt that while the governor laid out some great concepts, I didn’t really see a lot of concrete programs or plans or proposals. What did you see?
Tristan Toleno: Yeah. I would agree. To a certain extent he gets a pass on that, in that he will have his budget address in a couple of weeks.
But he had a conflicting message.
He said he wants to just speak of Vermont as being strong and successful and feeling like he wants to affirm that. Then, the largest part of his speech was really all about things that he thinks are wrong. And I think he gave lip service to what’s going right.
I guess I see a profoundly different Vermont than he does — certainly one with challenges, and I would even agree with him on some of those challenges.
But there’s a lot of evidence Vermont was one of the earliest states to have our economy start to recover post recession. We have in recent years more net in-migration than any other state per capita. We have many places that recognize that we’re actually a pretty good place for business innovation and startups. We have among the top education metrics and among the top health metrics.
We have a vision of ourselves as a community — we’re connected to each other. There’s a lot there that speaks to not just who we have been but also what we can do together.
And you know I think his lip service — to say, “Well you know, the state of Vermont is strong” — was kind of the tokenism that really was hiding a pretty bleak view of what’s going on. He sees us largely through the narrow lens of what affordability means and through the lens largely of the business community that says that they’re struggling to find workers. And I agree with him and them, 100 percent.
But he went through a litany of all of these different places that are looking for employees. And from the work that I’ve done in the State Workforce Development Board and on a work group around the workforce issues, I know that in many sectors the wages being offered are not competitive.
And the governor is not as committed or, I don’t think, as informed about our programs that are designed to help people succeed in the workplace. When we’re in a period of relatively low unemployment, as we are now, most people have work, but many people need more work or better work, and they need a little help getting there.
And a key part of what our social services do is try to help people make make those connections to work, to make the connections to child care that allow them to just to be successful in a new job, to connect with case-management services to help them if they have some modest disabilities to get reasonable accommodations.
There’s also this huge chasm between what employers are willing to pay and what it will take to attract new workers.
And these are the fundamentals of a market economy. Sometimes it seems that our governor thinks that the market economy ultimately works for the few and for the business owners.
It’s sort of a strange conundrum, and I felt it very strongly in his speech.
O.P.: You know, I’m glad you said that, Tristan. I know you and I have talked about this.
One of my soapboxes is my frustration with the gap between cost of living in Vermont and wages and employee benefits — they’re just not lining up. And I didn’t see anything in the governor’s speech yesterday that would hint toward closing that really. Am I just missing it, or was it just not there?
T.T.: I don’t think so, and I guess that’s when I say the governor has kind of a narrow view of affordability. When he says “affordability,” he largely means he wants to lower taxes. And he’ll say, “Well, the tax burden hits everybody a different way but it’s too high for everybody and we need to make Vermont affordable.”
I would argue, and I think many people would agree with me, that affordability is actually a more complex problem. It includes how much people are able to earn and what businesses are able to pay.
And to hear him talk about a business and benefits and other things — and just to sort of close the loop on that point — is why we’re looking at the minimum wage again. It’s why we’re looking at paid family leave insurance even if it has to be self-funded by employees.
I think we have a more expansive view of affordability, that housing, wages, and benefits in child care are for many people way more of a significant factor on their tax burden.
And so I certainly think that voters need to communicate to the governor that his affordability message is ringing hollow, that it seems like what he’s really saying is, “I want to lower the tax burden for the people who can actually afford it the most, steer resources to the businesses who are the people who I am listening to, and focus my efforts there.”
It’s not that he’s utterly dismissive of the other issues, but it’s a question of priority and emphasis and strategy.
I think it will become increasingly clear who he really is listening to and who he thinks he needs to win in sort of his version of Vermont.
And I don’t think it’s the average Vermonter.
O.P.: He’s put a lot of focus on education and education spending. Do you think he has anything up his sleeve around changes for education?
T.T.: Yeah, I do. I think he will likely focus on this metric of adults — staff — in the building, the ratio of staff to students. And he signaled that yesterday; he said we had 30,000 drop in the number of students in our K-to-12 system but we still have these higher staffing levels.
I think he’s likely to propose a cap of some sort on that ratio and then he’s going to claim the savings in his budget and he’s going to try to spend that on pre-K and higher ed in a way that splits a lot of traditional coalitions and say we need to just squeeze more out of our existing pot of money. And this is the way to do it. We’ve got to get rid of this, change this ratio.
But what that really means actually is forcing the largest single layoff in Vermont history — it would be a couple of thousand people out of the school system. And what it ignores, frankly, is that those adults are in the building because of the professional judgment of principals, superintendents, and school boards. And then ultimately by votes of the communities involved.
These adults play a role in kids’ lives. And it’s a function of us asking more and more of our education system in terms of what we need for care. It’s a reflection of the challenges of the opiate crisis on families.
There are many factors which are driving those staffing levels. But to say that this is about a ratio — that we can cap that ratio and take the money and spend it elsewhere with no consequences — is, I think, clearly wrong.
It’s not just destructive in the sense of losing the work that those people do in the schools and how that will affect kids, but it actually is a real shift in thinking around what role Montpelier has in the state’s education system.
We in state government have not been in control historically; our system is not one that’s built on us to be in control of the staffing decisions at the local level. And if he uses the ratio of adults to children as just another way to try to take control over that system for financial reasons, that’s clearly and explicitly not in the best interest of the children.