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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo

Becca Balint of Brattleboro represents Windham County in the Vermont State Senate, where she serves as Senate majority leader.

News / Column

Senate majority leader: heavy lifts in 2019

Despite practical issues of representation and differences in cultures between the House and Senate impeding signature legislation, Sen. Becca Balint says the fight will resume in 2020 for legislation addressing the minimum wage, paid family leave, and cannabis regulation

This interview is adapted from Montpelier Happy Hour, a podcast from Commons reporter Olga Peters. The show — distributed by Peter “Fish” Case’s Earspoon local podcasting network — drops on Friday afternoons. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/user-795427523.

BRATTLEBORO—Becca Balint, one of two state senators from Windham County, serves on the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs as well as a slew of other Senate committees: Finance, Rules, and the Sexual Harassment Panel.

She also serves on the Joint Committee on Judicial Rules, the Joint Rules Committee, and the Adverse Childhood Experiences Working Group, as well as the PEG (Public, Educational, and Government Access) TV Working Group, to which she was recently elected chair.

Balint, a Democrat, began her work as state senator in 2015. She now serves as the Senate majority leader.

We talked a lot about the end of the legislative session, the differences in process and tone between the House and Senate, and the prospects for major legislation moving forward when the Legislature reconvenes for the 2020 session in January.

Also in our interview — available on the Montpelier Happy Hour podcast — we talked about the PEG issue, which we’ve written about elsewhere this issue.

Constituents may contact Balint at bbalint@leg.state.vt.us or 802-365-1060.

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Olga Peters: You’re in your second year as Senate majority leader. How did that go this year?

Becca Balint: It was a challenging year because of the way that the session ended — it’s taking me a few weeks to get over my own grieving process that we weren’t able to get minimum wage and paid family leave to the governor’s desk this year. But I look at all that we were able to get accomplished, and I actually feel really great about the work that we did.

I’ve already met with House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington). We are committed to getting those bills passed next year before we adjourn for the biennium.

In retrospect we would rather have more time to get these bills right. We’re not interested in playing a game of chicken with Gov. Phil Scott — to work hard on behalf of our constituents to pass something and then just have it be something that ends up vetoed.

O.P.: I find it interesting that the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch both seem to agree that they want to make Vermont more affordable. It’s just their ideas of what would make it more affordable are different.

B.B.: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a fundamental philosophical divide.

I know that, on some level, the governor and his team do understand that paid-family-leave insurance is attractive to a wide swath of Vermonters because he and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu were looking at a bi-state plan. Last biennium, it didn’t seem like that was an idea that he felt had legs.

So many people in the workforce are going to have to take care of their elderly parents and other loved ones. Paid family leave is a benefit that so many Vermonters don’t just want, they need in order to keep their jobs. So I think we’re going to make some some progress on that issue.

Good public policy often has complicating factors.

There are all kinds of good reasons to shift policy away from having aging Vermonters in facilities that have around-the-clock clinical medical care and towards keeping them in their homes. But you have to have the supports in place in order for that to work for families.

So many constituents in Windham County are at their wits’ end trying to figure out how are they’re going to be taking care of Mom or Dad and also taking care of their own children and not losing their jobs — especially when you get to a critical point in someone’s care when they need you there for several really concentrated weeks to get them through a medical crisis.

Family medical insurance can really make a difference for those families. These are real people with real, crushing decisions to make, economically and emotionally.

Although we were not able to get an agreement between both chambers this session, we did get one in the previous biennium. So I know that we can do it and we will do it again.

I think the impasse also just highlights a fundamental difference in what it means to represent a House district and what it means to represent a Senate district.

O.P.: Hmm. How so?

B.B.: In the Senate, we had a much easier time passing a more aggressive minimum-wage increase. And I hear from an overwhelming sea of constituents across the county, so any really strong negative voices are diluted.

But representatives from some of the House districts that had been Republican before (and are now blue, essentially, but really could go either way in each cycle) said, “Look, I’m hearing from all my small businesses that a minimum-wage increase is going to kill their business.”

It’s difficult to be an elected official and have folks pulling you aside when you’re out running to get a carton of milk.

So I’m especially sympathetic to some of the new House members who really struggled with that. The difficult votes become easier as you realize who you are at your core as a public official.

We’re lucky in Windham County that we have so much agreement among the delegation about where we’re trying to go in terms of economics for the county. But very strong voices within the caucus from other parts of the state were very concerned about the minimum wage proposals and how they would impact small businesses in their districts.

Now, I think that argument is not a strong one. We’ve seen repeatedly from studies across the country that minimum-wage increases are really not job killers. And opponents always say the sky’s going to fall and businesses are going to close, but those of us in the Senate who’ve been here for multiple years have seen that the doom and gloom never comes to pass.

With the paid family medical leave insurance, we had a tougher time convincing some senators that this would be the right path.

A few senators didn’t like that the paid family medical leave insurance program would be accessed by middle-income Vermonters. But a huge swath in the middle doesn’t get support for a lot of the the expenses that really pinch their family budgets, and if they’re paying into the system of a family medical leave insurance program, then of course they should be able to take advantage.

So this give and take has made it very challenging to get to compromise on these bills.

We will end up with more of a program that will put us on a better path. Will it be perfect? No. No minimum-wage increase that the governor will sign will be what I want. But is some wage increase better than none? Absolutely.

O.P.: What are some of the heavy lifts you’re really happy with?

B.B.: Oh, my gosh. So we passed the strongest measures protecting women’s reproductive health care in the nation, and it was such a proud moment for me to see The New York Times pick up the story.

It is such a scary time. These were not easy conversations to have with many constituents who are adamantly opposed to abortion for any reason. I learned a lot about how to talk across political difference on this issue.

But fundamentally, when I am trusting women and families and their doctors to make these decisions, I feel much more comfortable with the state of health care in Vermont. I’m so proud of that.

We also expanded dental care services for Vermonters for the first time I believe in 30 years, including giving Medicaid recipients access to free cleanings and preventative care.

We increased financial subsidies for low- and moderate-income families for child care. We increased monthly payments for the Reach Up Program, also long overdue.

I’m proud of our smoking cessation work, that we raised the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. We know that if we can make it more difficult for young people to buy tobacco products it’s going to be much more likely that they won’t pick up the habit later on.

I was disappointed that the governor vetoed the firearms waiting period legislation, but I know that so many in my chamber are committed to bringing it up again.

We have a real problem with men taking their lives — some have called it “the silent epidemic.” We have an incredibly high rate of suicide among men when compared to the national average.

We do have terrible instances of domestic violence and women disproportionately are impacted by that. But of the 568 Vermonters who died from gunshots between 2011 and 2018, 88 percent of those deaths were males, and 88.6 percent of the deaths were suicides. This other issue seems to not get any real press.

I was really hoping the governor could use this as an opportunity to talk about that situation. He hasn’t done so yet but we will continue to work on that issue.

O.P.: Talk about that a little bit more. I felt that the legislature’s arguments in favor of this waiting period with respect to suicide prevention were really strong. Did the governor ever sit down with the Legislature and say, “Hey, this is why I don’t want to pass this bill”?

B.B.: I don’t believe those conversations happened. My sense is that the governor was not clear until the last few hours exactly how he was going to come down on that issue.

Not to be cynical, I but I do think he’s getting messages from his team about his re-election, right?

If every other year you’re gearing up for re-election, you know that those decisions that you make impact people at the ballot box and that many people in office are impacted by that calculation. That, I think, is a downside of the two-year term.

The governor decided to sign the bill protecting abortion access but veto the gun bill. Many of us felt like that was a nod to some moderates in his base who want abortion access to remain legal in Vermont and then to play to his significant base among gun rights supporters in Vermont.

O.P.: The Legislature also passed a bill prohibiting single-use plastic bags.

B.B.: I was really proud to be able to stand on the floor of the Senate and talk about Brattleboro’s lead in the banning of single-use plastic bags. It was wonderful when many senators had doubts about whether it could work and I could say, “Hey, we’ve already done this in Brattleboro. And the sky didn’t fall.”

In Brattleboro, consumers adjusted and stores adjusted. We can do this statewide. And I think that moved a lot of people to hear that.

I was really proud of Brattleboro for leading the way on that and our local activists who really pushed push the issue.

O.P.: I think we also need to give the businesses some props, too, because I got the impression, especially from the larger grocery stores like Hannaford and Market 32 that they started planning ahead of time.

B.B.: Exactly. They were proactive, and we did not get a lot of pushback from the Retail Grocers Association, which is the trade group for so many of our stores.

I think they realized that this is the way the nation is going. We all feel like we’re drowning in plastic products and this is a concrete step — not just to physically reduce the amount of plastic bags in circulation, but also to get us to think differently about consumption.

So it’s exciting to know that it started here and is spreading out across the state from here.

O.P.: And the broadband bill, which you worked on with Laura Sibilia (I-Dover)?

B.B.: Laura did the heavy lift on the House side along with Tim Briglin (D-Thetford Center). I’m really proud that we have a bill — finally, after all these years — that’s going to give incentives and funding. It is so, so needed.

At the state level, everybody thinks, “Oh, Brattleboro’s got great coverage, right?” I can’t get cell service in most of my district. I get calls dropped on South Main Street.

We have significant work to do, and this bill will certainly not solve all of our problems. But what I love about it that it’s turning back to communities to say, “We’ve got money available to you, and we have support at the state level.”

We’ve got people at the Department of Public Service who are going to be able to meet with communities on the ground and help figure out what system is going to work for your town. Is it a public/private partnership? Is it something along the lines of the E.C. Fiber model, where you had a group get together in central Vermont and figure out how to get fiber to the premises?

It’s going to take a lot of different creative plans. But I feel more hopeful about expanding broadband than I have in a long, long time.

O.P.: We have a few challenges around broadband. We have old infrastructure. We also don’t have the population density to make it worth it for companies. And we also have some crazy weather and topography.

B.B.: Yeah. Absolutely.

O.P.: So what works in Brattleboro might not work in Newport.

B.B.: You’ve got it. And to throw another factor into the mix: Do we invest any more in outdated technology, services that are basically at the edge of being obsolete? Some senators felt like, “Look, I’d rather have dial-up than nothing. And we’ve been promised access for years, so it makes me nervous when you say you’re going to invest more in fiber. What if it never comes to my community?”

It makes no sense to invest in outdated technology. This isn’t just a nice thing for people to have. This is about not just the economy. It’s also about kids connecting to their schools. It’s about people being able to see a specialist through telemedicine.

So it’s not an option for us to turn away from this technology. If we want Vermont rural economies to survive, we have to have this technology. I believe that so sincerely.

O.P.: What’s going on with cannabis?

B.B.: Windham County cares a lot about cannabis legalization and whether we’re going to go to tax and regulate.

I met with the House majority leader about this, and she feels like they do have a commitment from House leadership to bring a tax-and-regulate bill to the floor.

We in the Senate have passed a version of tax-and-regulate five times now, I think, and we haven’t seen a House bill make it to the finish line.

Certainly, those of us in the southern part of the state see stores getting up and running in Massachusetts. It just seems outrageous for us not to be a part of this new economy.

I think we will get a tax-and-regulate bill through, but will the governor sign it? He has been pretty adamant that he doesn’t want to unless we develop a roadside saliva test. We are hesitant to support that because of privacy issues.

O.P.: The prevention coalitions also want to make sure that kids don’t have access to marijuana and to make sure that they don’t think that legalization means that it is harmless and normal. How do you respond to those concerns?

B.B.: As a former educator, I have been very keen to read the research specifically on young men who use cannabis at a young age, when their brains are still forming.

And we know that there definitely appear to be links between early use of cannabis and increasing cases of psychosis — much, much more likely to happen in male teens.

I’m also sure you know from talking to the prevention coalition that the cannabis that is being produced now is so much stronger in terms of its THC content than what was grown in the 1970s.

I hold both ideas.

First, this is the way the nation is going, so we can’t be an island. We have already so many producers here in Vermont that have been producing for decades. And so we can’t continue to pretend that it’s not already here.

But I also want a regulated market, and part of doing so is making sure that a significant amount of money is set aside for prevention. And in the same way that we increased the smoking age to 21, I am adamant that marijuana is a product that should not be available to people under 21.

I don’t know of a single senator who has supported legalization that doesn’t also have this very strong concern around keeping it out of the hands of youth.

One of the interesting things that I have learned from from many people who have come to testify around issues related to homelessness and housing concerns is that their drug use started in the home. It was normalized for them.

So we have to do a better job of talking to families about the messages that we send to kids.

At one point, we participated in a program around the issue of legalization, and the organizers tried to get a wide swath of the community to come out and talk about it. We wanted parents who also used cannabis recreationally to talk about how their kids are learning that having it in the home is something that you use as an adult in moderation, like having beer in their refrigerator or gin in the cabinet.

But those recreational users didn’t feel safe coming to a forum and talking publicly. They were concerned about being judged.

So our community needs to get more grown-up in talking about these things honestly and openly and not being so judgmental.

O.P.: Becca, you know that we in the press spent a lot of time watching the end of the session because it seemed like this session couldn’t decide whether it wanted to end or not. What doyou think was at the core of that?

B.B.: Fundamentally, it goes back to having very different chambers, and we don’t necessarily understand each other’s culture.

In the Senate, the pro-tem and I have to keep track of 30 people and make sure they’re in their seats to vote on the important issues. The House leadership has to keep track of 150 people. We were not as understanding of what that meant for them.

Our perspective was, “Let’s stay until we get it done because this will be worth it.” And they kept saying, “Yes, we get what you’re saying, but you’re assuming the longer we stay we’ll have enough people to vote on these issues.”

You also have a fundamental difference of styles of the House leader and the Senate leader. They communicate in different ways, they communicate with their chambers in different ways.

So I’m still trying to sort out: How do you keep your core identity as your chamber and how you do business? Because that is important to so many longtime House members and longtime Senate members. They don’t want to become like the other body. They’ve got their own way of doing it.

O.P.: That’s so Vermont.

B.B.: That’s like every town in Vermont, right? Putney doesn’t do it like Dummerston. Dummerston doesn’t do it like Halifax. So it’s not an unusual thing that this would be true in the Legislature as well.

But does this essential tribalism serve us? I think often it doesn’t help. We need to do more talking with members of the other chamber so that we can understand in real time how issues are being considered there so that we’re not surprised at the end. Those critical conversations need to be happening more, before we get to a point where communication just seems to break down.

We’re also a “part-time” legislature. We work around the year, but we’re only paid from January to May. We don’t have any staff.

And so if you don’t invest in the infrastructure, whatever that infrastructure is, you’re going to start to see the crack.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #518 (Wednesday, July 10, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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