Pandemic shows our vulnerabilities

As COVID-19 wore on, more was revealed to each of us - about our own needs, the needs of our neighbors, and the needs of our communities. Taxes provide the resources to repair these cracks.

BRATTLEBORO — Monday, May 17, was Tax Day. I know the topic of taxes can spark strong reactions in Vermonters, yet taxes pay for things we like and share such as libraries, schools, roads, and trash collection, and they are a valuable tool for closing the wealth gap. Taxes are part of how we each contribute to a Vermont that meets our needs.

This incredibly difficult year has delivered significant challenges for our health, parenting, increased isolation and fear, job loss, and an increasingly divided economy and political landscape.

What gave me hope through the pandemic was how as the cracks widened, more was revealed to each of us - about our own needs, the needs of our neighbors, and the needs of our communities.

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As Democrats and as Vermonters, we've done tremendous work over the last year to fill some of those cracks.

Since last March, every Vermonter who wanted a spot to live and a bed to sleep in was housed. We expanded our food system statewide so that restaurants could feed more of us, and we funded schools to deliver meals to students and families through the summer.

These were essential, emergency interventions, and we were one of the few states that stepped up in this dynamic, urgent way to keep people housed and fed.

But, ideally our work is not only to fill the cracks; we aim to repair them.

We are using our investments to close the wealth gap and investing in social infrastructure: by strengthening systems and services that increase health and well-being; investing in workforce training and higher education; and sustaining a child care system that's accessible, that's affordable, and that meets working families' needs. We are growing our stock of affordable housing and expanding broadband.

When our legislative session wraps up, we will have done each of these things.

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At the heart of this intensive legislative work has been responsive government and, of course, taxation.

Families stepped up to take care of one another and invest in one another. Thousands of Vermonters accessed state services and benefits. But too many Vermonters struggled to access those services and learned for the first time that some of our systems are held together with duct tape and baling twine.

Our unemployment insurance system, which saw an exponential increase in claims this year, relies on a computer system with formulas that were last reprogrammed in 1984. The failures have made some headlines, and the frustration and heartache of my constituents trying to navigate this morass haunts me.

We know that the reimbursement levels aren't enough to make ends meet for so many families, and we know that women and people of color have been disproportionately impacted by layoffs this year. Many parents can't find new jobs because they're still home caring for their kids and they find themselves dependent on insufficient supports.

I was proud to work recently on real repairs to our unemployment insurance system. We assembled a task force to look at the functioning of the system, the needs of beneficiaries, and the solvency of the trust fund.

At a time when states across the country are pulling back on their support, when some states are even refusing to pay out federal benefits, the Vermont House is voting to add an additional $25 per week for all unemployment insurance beneficiaries. We project that we will pay out $100 million over the next 10 or more years to Vermonters who are out of work.

We're also hoping to take full advantage of federal tax changes this year. We were able to provide tax relief to working families through an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child and Dependent Care Credit.

For EITC, we've lowered the eligibility age range from 25 to 19 years old, removed the cap of age 65 to qualify, and increased the credit amount for single-filers.

EITC is considered one of the nation's most successful anti-poverty programs, providing a refundable tax credit to low-income, working households, and Vermont's is one of the highest in the nation. We're pairing with federal changes to increase the Child and Dependent Care benefit helping families making up to $120,000 per year, so that parents and caregivers can stay at work.

In doing so, we're significantly expanding a benefit that helps low-income individuals and families, who are disproportionately women or people of color.

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Over this last year, so many of our assumptions about what makes a strong economy have been confirmed: meaningful social supports that people can depend on, investments in infrastructure improvement, responsive governance, and progressive taxation.

I'm closing this session, and this tax season, hopeful about all we've accomplished - and even more clear eyed about all that's left to be done.

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