What is the government we need, and how do we pay for it?
Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo
State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, heads into the new legislative session as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

What is the government we need, and how do we pay for it?

Brattleboro representative savors new role as chair of Ways and Means, the committee that asks the big questions about state government and how to fund it

BRATTLEBORO — This year, State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser has hit the ground running.

The Windham-7 district representative, a Democrat and one of three House members from Brattleboro, opened the legislative session when she was chosen to nominate the current speaker of the House, Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).

It was a high honor, she said.

“We in the building tend to talk about people working tirelessly, rather than skillfully or compassionately,” said Kornheiser. “So when I was offered the honor, it was really important to me to talk about some different qualities that I think are important in leadership.”

So in her nomination speech, Kornheiser quoted part of a Marge Piercy poem, “To be of use.” The part she quoted — “who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward/who do what has to be done, again and again”— highlighted her way of thinking as much as it does Krowinski’s.

“She puts those she serves ahead of herself, ahead of glory,” Kornheiser said in her remarks.

Tax policy for the public good

This is clearly the year when Kornheiser, who took office in 2019, steps up in leadership and visibility.

For one thing, she has served on the Ways and Means Committee — the committee that sets tax policy — for some time. And Kornheiser, the vice-chair in the 2021-22 biennium, has now been given the prestigious job of committee chair.

Being chair of Ways and Means is also the culmination of a longtime dream for Kornheiser.

“On some level, I ran for office because I was interested in being on Ways and Means,” Kornheiser said. “It’s really, really important to me that government works. That’s why I ran for office. And in order for government to work, we need to make sure that we’re collectively investing in it.”

“I think for a really long time, we’ve limited government to the size of the box that was available,” she said. “And I want to talk about that in a different way. That’s why I’m interested in Ways and Means.”

As described on the Legislature’s website, the committee “considers matters relating to the revenue of the state, and shall inquire into the state of the Treasury; ascertain the amount of debt due to the state and the claims against it, [and] report the amount of taxes necessary to be raised for this for the government.”

The committee is also charged with “inquir[ing] what measures, if any, ought to be adopted to better to equalize public burdens, security, accountability, public agents, and otherwise improve the financial concern of the state, including all matters related to taxation, local or otherwise, and all matters relating to the grand list,” its brief continues.

“The part that really resonates for me is the part about reporting the amount of taxes necessary to be raised for the support of the government and inquire what measures, if any, ought to be adopted to better equalize the public burdens,” Kornheiser said.

“I think we talk a lot about wealth inequality,” she said. “And we talk about it in a national context. But I think there’s an enormous amount we can do, as a state, to close the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

“A lot of that is making sure that state government is functioning well enough to support folks, wherever they are, and to make sure the resources are there to do that,” Kornheiser said.

In a way, you could say that this session, Brattleboro is sitting close to the money. With Kornheiser running Ways and Means and Michael Pieciak, who grew up in Brattleboro, sitting in the treasurer’s seat, the town has a commanding presence in Montpelier.

Kornheiser and Pieciak have known each other for quite a while.

“We certainly talk regularly,” Kornheiser said. “We’ve had a lot of good conversations leading up to his swearing in, conversations about policy and ways we can work together.”

In addition, “I worked right next door to his mother for a few years and saw her every morning,” she said. “I was happy for her as a glowing mother, and I took a picture of her on the balcony during his swearing in and sent it to him.”

A knack for numbers

Growing up, Kornheiser wasn’t necessarily a math geek, but she has a background in numbers that makes her a natural for this kind of work — though, she observed that “it’s fairly unusual, especially for girls.”

She has a degree in sociology from Marlboro College and attended a graduate program in community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont.

“A lot of my professional work since then has been either macroeconomic work, or poverty alleviation work,” Kornheiser said. “I’m comfortable around numbers, but I’m not someone who can multiply three numbers and know what the answer is off the bat. But that is not at all a prerequisite for this job. It’s more being able to look at a graph and ask the right questions about it.”

One of the most extraordinary things about Vermont, Kornheiser said, is that it has some of the most socioeconomically diverse communities — “and even streets!” — in the country.

“But we can do better, and we can certainly prevent ourselves from doing worse,” she said.

And so the purview of the Ways and Means Committee “is to raise money in support of government.”

“We set tax rates,” she said. “We set tax policy. We set fees. Any bill that affects the revenue of the state would come through our committee for review and discussion and approval.

“And I’m interested in ensuring that we can raise the revenue necessary to fund some of the really important policy priorities that the Democratic caucus is working on —and the Legislature is working on —to make Vermont a place that works for everyone,” Kornheiser said. “To make sure that universal family medical leave is affordable, that there is accessible quality child care, and that everyone has a safe place to live.”

Another try for family and medical leave

As part of her new role in leadership, Kornheiser spent time before the session drafting a piece of legislation to bring paid family leave to the Legislative discussion — jump-starting the debate on a legislative priority that was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott in 2020.

This year, the Democrats have enough votes to override a veto if they choose to.

Kornheiser is now getting legislators to sign on in support of what is called the Universal Paid Family and Medical Leave bill.

As envisioned, it would guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all Vermont workers, including part-time and seasonal ones. It provides paid time off in the event of the birth or adoption of a child, personal medical leave, and leave for people experiencing domestic violence or whose family member is called into active duty.

This is a social issue; it will fall under the purview of Ways and Means because “it is connected to raising revenue because we’re going to need to raise revenue in order to pay for the program,” Kornheiser said.

The bill, introduced Jan. 19 with 103 co-sponsors, first goes to the Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.

It already has the support of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR), which described the “burgeoning support for paid family and medical leave” in its weekly newsletter.

“The program would be funded by a payroll tax estimated at .58 percent which will be split evenly between employers and employees,” the VBSR told its members. “It’s worth noting that employers would also have the option to pay a portion of (or all) of their employees’ share.”

Back to the math: With that rate, for every $1,000 in an employee’s paycheck, the tax burden for the employer and the employee would be $2.90 apiece.

Kornheiser said the bill makes sure “that it’s paid for by the people who are best positioned to pay for it. It’s making sure that folks can take the time they need to care for a loved one, to care for a child, or to care for themselves if they’re sick.”

“It’s for someone who needs to take safe leave because of domestic violence,” she continued. “It’s for someone who is caring for someone or loves someone who’s deployed. It’s not that everyone would take 12 weeks for all of those things if 12 weeks were available.”

Kornheiser is hoping that this time, the governor will support the bill.

“We are living in very different circumstances,” she said. “I don’t think we could have imagined a more public and catastrophic call for family medical leave than the Covid pandemic.”

She pointed out that during the pandemic, the state “sort of used the unemployment insurance system as a square peg in a round hole to meet some people’s financial needs during that time.”

“But it wasn’t nearly enough,” she said. “And it didn’t work well enough.”

Federal money in the state’s coffers will give the state some flexibility in making investments of this nature, she noted.

“Now we have more available money than we did previously. The Legislature has more money to pay for startup costs right now because of unanticipated revenues. And, actually, in the last few forecasts that we’ve seen, incomes are indeed going up. That’s good news.”

Accountability for use of state funds

Kornheiser also came to the session with a completely different and hard-nosed kind of a bill, H.10, which requires businesses receiving state money to report more thoroughly and stringently on how they use it.

According to VTDigger, the state has awarded more than $33 million in incentives to companies planning to open or expand in the state through the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive Program, which is administered by the Vermont Economic Progress Council.

State Auditor Doug Hoffer has been against the program for almost as long as it has been in existence. And he is not alone.

“I’ve talked to quite a few journalists who have covered this off and on over the years,” Kornheiser said. “And they are constantly frustrated that they can’t even get the information they need to report on the program.”

Oversight is a huge problem.

“The state gives businesses money to expand their workforce,” Kornheiser said. “It’s based on a promise that those businesses would not expand their workforce without this money. You can argue many ways about whether or not this is an effective use of state dollars, but the auditor has released numerous reports.”

An analysis from the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, which provides lawmakers with nonpartisan data and analysis to make informed decisions, showed that “businesses are not meeting the statutory requirements, or the spirit of the statutory goals,” she said.

“If the program is to remain in existence, it must be accountable to taxpayers, to the Legislature, and be doing what it needs to be doing,” Kornheiser continued.

On Jan. 5, the bill was read for the first time and referred to the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.

Other priorities

Kornheiser has other priorities this year, she said.

“I want to make sure that property taxes are working in a way that folks are paying appropriately based on their ability to pay,” she said. “And that we’re not doing anything to either incentivize or disincentivize the kind of housing markets that we want in Vermont.”

Providing quality child care is another issue Kornheiser feels passionate about.

“We’re going to have a conversation about how to really, seriously create a child care system that’s affordable, accessible, and of high quality,” she said. “We need to expand what we see as the education of child care providers, and to make sure that it is paid for.”

The problems are complex.

“There’s a huge shortage of people willing to do that kind of work right now,” Kornheiser said. “And a lot of it is that the wages are horrific, and don’t in any way either cover the costs of the kinds of education that’s needed for folks who are going into the field, or compensate folks for the really incredible high quality and difficult work that they’re doing.”

“I don’t think we want folks who are caring for our youngest children to be living in the kind of chronic stress that a poverty situation creates,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be living under that kind of chronic stress, but it seems particularly important here.”

A new biennium with new possibilities

In many ways, Kornheiser seems to be completely comfortable with her new position, despite regularly experiencing “that incredible sense of wonder that I somehow belong here,” she said.

She is especially hopeful about the session because there are so many new legislators.

“I’m hoping we can have different conversations than we’ve had before,” Kornheiser said. “And we can get more done and feel more sort of hopeful. And it can be more informed by a broader diversity of stakeholders.”

“This is a brand new biennium,” she said. “We’re all finding our way. It’s always really hard to balance the need for really careful, thoughtful work with what often feels like the frantic urgency of a biennium of a session that’s only five months long.”

Kornheiser wants her constituents to reach out to her, either by calling or attending one of the regular meetings that the Windham County delegation holds on weekends.

“I also want to encourage folks to talk to their neighbors about ethical issues, to reach out to me or any legislators in Windham County when they’re thinking about something that might impact state governments or their lives,” she said. “Be in touch.”

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