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Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, is planning to run for lieutenant governor in November.

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Legislators focus on housing, climate, health, transportation

Tim Ashe, Senate president pro tem, visits Brattleboro and highlights the work in progress this session and navigating the divide between two parties controlling two branches of state government

BRATTLEBORO—So far, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, sees the current legislative session as “positive,” citing progress on bills related to climate change, housing, and updates to the Act 250 permitting system that he describes as “complicated, but important.”

“The work between the House and the Senate is going pretty well,” said Ashe, who visited the region on Feb. 24, meeting with constituents such as students at Brattleboro Union High School.

“We have a number of issues that are in the development phase that will be done by the end [of the session],” he said.

He described such bills as being more complicated than other legislation because they touch multiple parts of state government.

Ashe is also a candidate for lieutenant governor, facing three primary rivals, including Brenda Siegel of Newfane. But he said it’s “way too early” to discuss the campaign.

“Nobody is thinking about that until after the session,” he said.

Encouraging housing at different income levels

In a nutshell, the housing legislation looks at smart-growth housing policies, such as creating more compact downtowns and infilling open or neglected space with residential buildings.

This legislation seeks to support this construction through the Act 250 process and connecting state and local funding, he said.

Ashe said the goal of this legislation is to support more communities in creating policies that encourage housing at different income levels.

The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs will vote on its version of the bill sometime this week, Ashe estimated.

In Windham County, Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, has stressed that smaller villages, such as Newfane, need to install water and sewer infrastructure if they want to grow their housing stock or commercial base.

Ashe said that the housing legislation the Senate is working on includes supports for new infrastructure as well. The state has some state and federal monies for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.

“A lot of our smaller town centers and villages do not have the type of infrastructure that Brattleboro has, so the question is if we’re going to encourage people to put the housing there, how do we do it in the most environmentally impactful way?” he said. “Have Chris Company call me if he has any good ideas.”

Getting around

Half of the state’s harmful emissions come from transportation, Ashe said, so while transportation changes might not appear a glamorous issue, they can make a huge dent in the state’s progress to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Fighting climate change with transportation-related legislation has stepped up, he said.

According to Ashe, Vermont is considering joining 12 states and Washington, D.C. in a multi-state initiative called the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

“The state of Vermont will have a decision to make about whether it wants to join or not,” he said. “And I’m hopeful that we will.”

Ashe said that while the details aren’t yet totally clear, the initiative will be able to “effectively guarantee a reduction in transportation-related harmful emissions, which is our biggest [climate change] contributor in Vermont.”

Membership in this initiative could also produce revenues for Vermont, he said — monies that could fund new transportation investments, such as campaigns to get more people into fuel-efficient vehicles.

The possibility exists for other community-specific solutions such as microtransit, public transportation that can “incorporate flexible routing, flexible scheduling, or both,” according to one academic paper.

Ashe said Montpelier is piloting a microtransit program, which he described as a more “on-demand” form of public transportation.

“It might not be realistic to have fixed-route every-15-minute public transit down every dirt road,” he said.

According to Ashe, if all states and Washington, D.C. join the initiative, then their combined economies will add up to being the fifth-largest economy in the world.

Criminal justice and mental health

One piece of legislation Ashe believes will be important to people in Windham County is the recent work the House and Senate have done with criminal justice reform.

“What it does is it says we need to invest more resources in communities for when people get out of jail to reduce the likelihood that they’re going to commit new offenses,” Ashe said.

The legislation specifically provides community support and transitional housing that aims to help people recently released from prison, he added.

“So it’s a combination of the investments in the community process and revisions to the sentencing that we do when people commit a new violation on their release into the community,” Ashe said.

The Legislature is also keeping an eye on the overall mental health system.

Ashe said he hopes this will be the fourth year in a row that lawmakers will increase funding for mental health services.

“We’ve made rebuilding the mental health system a priority in the Senate and the House,” he said, charging that Governor Phil Scott’s budgets “have been flatlining mental health spending.”

“So each year we’re having to scrape and scrap and make sacrifices elsewhere to help build back up the mental health system, but I’m hopeful we’ll be able to do that again this year,” Ashe said.

Ashe said the funding in the state budget provides services that support people across the system — for example, those who provide direct services.

“The people who do the work — for example, the people at HCRS — we got their starting pay at all the mental health agencies up to $14 an hour,” he said. “The question is, can we do even better to support what should be a profession, not just some job?”

This funding also means that clients who need services are “getting them more effectively,” he said.

Home rule rules

Another piece of legislation important to Brattleboro in general, and the Selectboard specifically, is S.106.

If passed, the bill would allow for greater local control and self-governance by municipalities in Vermont, which is a Dillon Rule state, meaning that municipalities have only the express powers granted to them by the Legislature and no legal authority to authorize new powers for themselves.

The bill sets up a pilot program for 10 communities to apply for participation.

Ashe said the issue hit his radar last year when Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, brought the bill to his attention.

“We worked together to fashion it in such a way that it wasn’t so risky that we were going to be giving a blank check to towns, who might then do things that run counter to broader state policies,” he said.

Transportation is an example of an area that a community could easily — and unintentionally — bump into state policy.

Ashe said he and White see a two-step path. The first step allows towns to outline the decisions they would like to have local control over. As step two, the state would then review and, if acceptable, approve the towns’ plans. The bill also creates a pilot program and review committee.

The Senate passed S.106 last year, 21–8. The bill is currently in the House Committee on Government Operations.

The environment

Ashe, who expects the later half of the session to focus on environmental legislation, said that Vermonters should see some of the fruits of the Legislature’s labors around water quality in the upcoming construction season.

Last year, the Legislature authorized a long-term funding source for improving water quality statewide, including Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River. Ashe reported that it also “revamped” how the money is spent so that local communities have a greater say in which projects get funding.

Testing all schools and child care centers for lead in the drinking water has also been an important public health measure, he said. The state is also testing drinking water for perfluorooctanoic acids, a byproduct of the manufacture of nonstick coatings.

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics manufactured the chemicals in North Bennington and has entered a settlement with the state to fund the extension of municipal water services to hundreds of homes and businesses whose private drinking water has been contaminated by the substance.

Evidence of water contamination has been found in three other towns: Clarendon, Pownal, and Shaftsbury. The Vermont Department of Health’s website has data on the state’s water testing and its results.

The state will fix its gaze on how to achieve climate change goals while saving Vermonters money — for example, modernizing how the state funds energy-efficiency efforts through Efficiency Vermont.

Another bill aimed at combating climate change, the Global Warming Solutions Act, has passed the House and will be taken up by the Senate after Town Meeting Day on Tuesday, March 3.

Raising wages

The minimum wage bill is important to Ashe.

On Tuesday, Feb. 25, the Democratic-majority-held Legislature voted 100–49 to override Governor Phil Scott’s veto of the minimum wage bill, narrowly achieving the two-thirds majority needed to enact the bill into law.

The Senate previously held its veto override vote. That resulted in a 24–6 vote, “which was the strongest vote we’ve had yet on the minimum wage,” Ashe said.

“That [bill] is important in general as a foundational issue to lift tens of thousands of people and their income up, which should help us address a lot of the other issues that we’re facing as a state,” he said.

Ashe noted that a lot of policies and actions that Vermont has taken in recent years have run contrary to the policies of the federal government and states governed by conservatives.

With the executive branch under the leadership of a Republican governor, conflict is almost inevitable.

“We also have to deal with a governor who is not very proactive or on his front feet about accentuating what’s best about Vermont and helping the work with the Legislature to move forward a vision,” he said.

Ashe cited a bill calling for a waiting period to purchase a firearm, calling it an important piece of legislation for which Scott has shown little support.

According to Ashe, two Harvard Business School professors, Deepak Malhotra and Michael Luca, who wrote the gold standard” report on reducing gun-related deaths, whether by suicide or homicide, told the Legislature that their research showed a connection between waiting periods of 48 hours or more and significant drops in suicides.

Last year, Scott vetoed a 24-hour waiting-period bill on the grounds that there was not enough research to show that a waiting period made a difference, Ashe said.

“That’s one issue where I hope we’ll be able to reignite that discussion,“ he said.

“With no new government programing and at no cost, we can save people’s lives, and we know that suicide by firearm in Vermont is a very serious problem,” he added.

Noting that Scott has vetoed a record number of bills in past sessions, Ashe hopes this trend won’t continue this session.

“Governors shouldn’t govern by veto and veto threat, and legislators shouldn’t have to legislate to avoid veto threats,” he said. “It should be a working together.”

In Ashe’s opinion, Scott’s habit of not joining lawmakers at the negotiating table is not party politics, but rather a leadership style of Scott’s.

Ultimately, however, this style stifles proactive work, Ashe said.

Still, Ashe ended on a positive note, saying a lot of good work has been completed this session and he feels hopeful the session will end on a high note.

“I feel that sometimes I take some heat because I’m not tearing down the governor nonstop, but I like to believe that’s not ultimately what the people want,” he said.

“What I’m hopeful for is that we will see a level of engagement on all the big issues that people care about and not an administration that repeats a pattern of waiting until the very end with either a veto or not.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #550 (Wednesday, February 26, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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