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Some of the 30 people in attendance during a Dec. 15 issues forum presented by the Rockingham and Westminster Town Democratic Committees. The attendees were split into small groups and asked to decide on the top three issues they want to see addressed in the 2019-20 biennium of the Vermont Legislature.

News

Voters name their top concerns

At a forum in Rockingham, state lawmakers hear about top priorities: climate, health care, Act 46

BELLOWS FALLS—Put 30 or so people in a room, and ask them what they want to see accomplished in the 2019-20 legislative biennium.

It was a daunting task but the Rockingham and Westminster town Democratic Party committees managed to narrow it down to four big issues during the three hours of discussion.

Those who gathered at the Rockingham Free Public Library on Dec. 15 had quite a few issues to put before Windham County Senators Jeanette White and Becca Balint and state Reps. Matthew Trieber and Carolyn Partridge (Windham-3), and Michael Mrowicki and newly-elected Nader Hashim (Windham-4), who will begin the 2019 legislative session on Jan. 9 in Montpelier.

But after splitting into small groups and talking with one another, participants came to a consensus that they want their state lawmakers to deal with climate change, to expand and improve access to health-care coverage, to raise the minimum wage to $15, and to rework Act 46 to preserve small schools.

Climate change and a ‘carbon-free future’

The chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Partridge said her committee tried to get a bill passed last session that would offer farmers incentives to improve the soil on their farms. The committee will reintroduce the bill this month, she said.

Partridge said a hearing is scheduled at the Statehouse on Jan. 22 on the role farmers have in combatting climate change. She said that if 75,000 acres of farmland were planted with cover crops and another 42,000 acres were used as buffer zones, Vermont could draw down nearly 82,000 metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere, the equivalent of the carbon emissions of approximately 22,000 automobiles.

Heating and driving are Vermont’s two main sources of carbon pollution, Partridge said, a by-product of living in a rural state with older, drafty homes and little public transportation.

“This goes a long way toward offsetting that,” she said.

Mrowicki said that a “Climate Caucus” was meeting weekly at the Statehouse and would continue those meetings in the upcoming sessions.

Trieber said he was a regular participant in the Climate Caucus meetings and praised them as an opportunity to spread knowledge beyond the silos of specific committees. He said he believes the best way to enact climate-change legislation is to get the measures into the state budget.

“It’s an easier way to get things passed into law,” he said. “Getting the state to move in a green direction is a fairly heavy lift.”

Partridge said she hopes to see more Democrats assigned to the Agriculture Committee in the upcoming biennium, which would give her committee a better chance of getting legislation to the House floor.

“Committee make-up determines a lot about what happens in a committee,” Balint added. “A committee should reflect what the majority of voters want.”

Universal health care

White said the first step for health-care policymakers is to change the definition of “health.”

“[W]hen most of us think about universal health care, we think of it from the neck down,” she said. “What we need to do is to start thinking about our whole bodies.”

That means dental, vision, and mental-health coverage need to be part of any universal health-care plan, White said, “and we need to think about them all together, instead of separating them out.”

White said more attention should be paid regarding Vermont’s hospitals — particularly its rural hospitals, which are struggling financially — and toward building a complete integrated mental-health-care system, including more community-based care.

Hashim added the lack of affordable housing in Vermont is also affecting the health-care system, and it contributes to the shortage of health-care providers in the state.

Partridge said when she first ran for the Legislature in 1998, universal health care was one of the issues she ran on. “Now it’s 20 years later, and we’ve gotten to a point where 97 to 98 percent of Vermonters have coverage. We’ve made progress, but we’re not quite there yet.”

She says she is now an advocate for a plan that would expand the Medicare program, now available for those 65 and older, to cover all ages of Americans. From her personal experience with the government health insurance, she said, “I love it. I can afford it, and it’s great care.”

Trieber said that while the state has done a good job getting people covered with health insurance, it hasn’t done as well in helping people pay for health care.

“I would argue that if you are a single mother punching a clock at $14 an hour, and you have a $3,000 deductible before your insurance kicks in, you’re not insured,” he said.

Trieber said that Democrats need to do a better job explaining why a Medicare expansion would be a better deal for most Americans.

“Everyone hates taxes, but Democrats have failed over time in our messaging about what taxes are,” Trieber said.

In the case of health insurance, he believes that the high premiums and deductibles that people now pay effectively constitute a tax, and that the taxes that would be needed to fund universal health care would be lower than current health-care costs.

Balint said that Vermont’s aging population is affecting health-care costs, with the bulk of health-care dollars being spent at the end of life. She believes Vermont’s best shot at universal care is joining with other states to form a regional system.

A livable wage

Raising the minimum wage — currently $10.78 per hour ($5.39 per hour for tipped employees) — has strong support of lawmakers, who last year approved increasing it to $15 per hour by 2024. The bill was vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Currently 29 states, including Vermont, have set their respective minimum wages at levels higher than the federal standard of $7.75 ($2.13 for tipped employees), a rate that has been unchanged since 2009.

Hashim said that small-business owners should embrace the idea, because putting more money in the pockets of workers will lead to increased consumer spending.

“A small business’s best friend is lower-income folks who are able to spend money at their businesses,” he said.

Trieber said he was one of the few Democrats to vote against raising the minimum wage. While he said that, at different times of his life, he has been on “every anti-poverty program you can be on,” he believes that raising the minimum wage would be a disservice to workers if nothing is done about what social-welfare advocates call “the benefits cliff.”

He said that the cliff begins at 140 percent of the federal poverty line, so a modest pay increase would have the effect of making low-income workers worse off financially, because they’d lose access to programs such as Medicaid, heating assistance, and food stamps.

“People who work full-time should not be in poverty,” Trieber said, but the current system makes it hard for people to “escape poverty and move forward.”

The best way to remedy the cliff, he said, was enacting modest co-pays for Medicaid recipients between 100 and 140 percent of the poverty line to help pay the cost of the program, and increasing the earned income credit for low-income Vermont wage earners so that pay increases don’t lead to being kicked out of anti-poverty programs.

Saving small schools

Act 46, the state’s school district consolidation law, was sold to lawmakers as a way to lower education costs by consolidating governance from the town school boards to supervisory-union-level boards.

But more and more lawmakers, and their constituents, now view Act 46 as a backdoor way of closing down small, rural schools. Supporters of the law say that, with a steadily dwindling school-age population and steadily rising staff and administrative costs, consolidation is inevitable.

The six lawmakers at the RFPL gathering said they support tweaks to Act 46.

“There’s no magic pill that is going to bring down costs and provide the kind of education we want our kids to have,” said Mrowicki. “There was a sense with Act 46 that if we put this one-size-fits-all plan on all towns, we would create equity and save money, and neither has happened.”

Mrowicki said “the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” as towns that wanted to merge have done so. Now, he said what’s at issue is that the wishes of towns that voted against consolidation are being ignored — which, he believes, violates “as basic a tenet of democracy as we have.”

He said there will be bills introduced in the upcoming session that will make Act 46 more responsive to the will of voters, that will better define educational equity, that will identify areas for savings, and that will push back the deadlines for compliance.

Partridge, who also serves as the chair of the Windham School Board, said that there needs to be a moratorium placed on any new school-merger plans until all the legal issues surrounding Act 68 are settled.

Six Windham County school districts — Athens, Bellows Falls Union High School, Dummerston, Grafton, Westminster, and Windham — have all signed on to a legal challenge to the decision by the state Board of Education on Nov. 28 to forcibly merge 45 democratically-elected school boards [“Legal action looms as state orders school districts to merge,” News, Dec. 5].

Keep talking

The gathering concluded with a plan to repeat this event during the Town Meeting recess week in March, with a focus on the state budget for fiscal year 2020.

The lawmakers urged the audience to call the Statehouse at 800-322-5616 when they are in session. The Sergeant-at-arms fields all incoming calls and connects callers with the appropriate lawmaker or legislative committee.

Balint said the entire Windham County legislative delegation meets regularly to talk about issues of importance “so that we talking across committees and across parties.”

“We have a really good team here,” she said.

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